The first worker cooperatives appeared during the 1820s, with the movement arising as a counterweight to the excesses of the industrial revolution. Such entities are community centric organisations, democratically controlled by the workers themselves. They are typically organised as a hierarchal structure, similar to that of a conventional business, with a board of directors and various grades of manager. The key differentiator being that the directors, and often the entire management team, are democratically elected by the workforce.
Advent of Anarchism
The cooperative model was further expounded by anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 1850s. His doctrine of mutualism advocated the free association of individuals, engaging in voluntary exchange, and predicated on occupancy & use rather than the imposition of property norms (this is often referred to as “possession property”). In Proundhon’s vision, cooperatives would be funded by a mutual-credit bank, operating in accordance with the Labour Theory of Value.
The First International
The International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) was an organisation comprised of anarchists, communists, socialists, and trade unionists committed to the class struggle. It was founded in London in 1864.
Right from the start there were tensions between the anarchists and the Marxists, with the anarchists favouring direct action, whilst the Marxists leant towards political reform, and in 1872 the organisation disintegrated.
By the early 20th century, revolutionary unionists (syndicalists) and organisations such as IWW, had adopted the cooperative concept as the basis for worker managed industry. Cooperatives would in theory supplant corporations after the workers had “seized the means of production“.
The term “syndicate” means “union”, but not in the sense of a modern trade union. Rather, syndicalists perceived unions not only as a means of organising, but also of revolution, and thereafter a mechanism for (re)structuring society. They envisaged that each cooperative would belong to a syndicate (a union of coops), and that a form of gift economy would develop internally within those syndicates.
An even more radical form of revolutionary unionism developed when the concept of syndicalism was combined with the notion of rational authority espoused by collectivist Mikhail Bakunin, and the theory of mutual aid developed by Peter Kropotkin a biologist and also the father of free communism. “Anarcho-syndicalism” literally means “revolutionary unionism without hierarchy”. It’s leading proponent was Rudolf Rocker, an anarchist without adjectives who authored the seminal work Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. In 1922 the IWA was refounded according the anarcho-syndicalist principles, as the International Workers Association, and set about affiliating a global network of syndicalists, predicated on cellular organisation with delegative democracy. IWA ultimately chose to eschew the “one big union” ideal of IWW, instead embracing direct action, Another key innovation of anarcho-syndicalism was the worker collective (a non-hierarchal form of worker cooperative).
In common with IWW, the ultimate goal of IWA is to subversively build a new society within the shell of the old. Hence anarcho-syndicalism is often perceived as praxis for bringing about anarchy: a classless, stateless (and perhaps even moneyless) society, predicated on equality of power, and governed by the sum conscience of each and every individual, according to principles arising from the imperative of social cohesion. This vision almost came to fruition in 1930s Catalonia.
By the 1950s, the state, not to mention the forces of fascism, appeared to have successfully curtailed the threat of revolutionary unionism. A process greatly assisted by the social optimism that blossomed in the aftermath of WWII, with capitalism gaining mass popularity as an antidote to the rise of Stalinism in Eastern Europe.
A greatly diminished IWA relaunched in 1952 but it’s old network had fragmented. Those anarcho-syndicalists who remained isolated became ever more subversive with many seeking to participate in the wider cooperative movement, although the goal of undermining both the state and capitalism remained unchanged. Unfortunately that initiative was itself floundering due to various structural impediments, which made acquiring the necessary capital to get a coop off the ground, somewhat prohibitive. It didn’t help that John D Rockefeller had all but single handedly transformed the Western education system into a boot camp for capitalism some 50 years prior. The combined effect of all this was to stifle the mass inception of worker cooperatives.
By 1980 the IWA was back up to modest strength, with reformed sections including Direct Action Movement in the UK, which later became the Solidarity Federation (SolFed). Outside of this a weak current of anarcho-syndicalism remained live within the cooperative movement, and various other ansynd inspired initiatives were assembling.
One of such low-key strategy briefly emerged in the 1990s, when the advent of an outsourcing boom created scope to usher in non-hierarchal labour syndicates through the back door. In theory any surplus generated through such an endeavour could then be used to provide startup capital with which to spawn satellite worker collectives. However, the widespread adoption of flatter organisational structures within the outsourcing sector, ultimately rendered this approach futile.
Here in the 21st century as capitalism crumbles, more and more private businesses are being rendered non-commercially viable, due to increasingly cut throat competition driven by economies of scale.
The operator who doggedly perseveres with a failing business clearly isn’t driven by a profit motive, yet retains access to the one thing that’s always eluded the nascent coop: capital. By restructuring themselves into non-hierarchal third sector coops, such businesses have the potential to reduce their payroll costs by around half, whilst boosting productivity through a more efficient division of labour. This in conjunction with the formation of loosely federated mutual aid networks (syndicates), would imbue them with a significant competitive advantage over comparable private enterprise.
A reinvigorated IWA has been steadily increasing its membership in parallel to this, with new locals springing up all around the world, the anarcho-syndicalist network now approaching the sort of reach it last commanded almost a century ago.
The synergies are obvious.