It was a dream of the late Mayor of Jackson Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba, to turn Jackson into a center of economic democracy building cooperatives, worker owned enterprises and financial institutions. The Mayor is dead but the dream lives on.
Last week the Jackson Rising Conference was held at Jackson State University. The purpose of the conference was to encourage Jacksonians to build cooperatives and worker-owned enterprises in order to meet the economic and sustainability needs of the community. The primary objective of the Conference was to:
...educate and mobilize the people of Jackson to meet the economic and sustainability needs of our community. In the process, we aim to expand the discussion about alternative economic models and systems - and to confront the harsh economic realities of low-income and impoverished communities.
It’s concerning that our taxpayer-funded universities are sponsoring events that espouse what appears on the surface to be nothing more than thinly veiled communism.
It's a chapter of our history that has long been suppressed and forgotten in many respects. What were the mutual-aid societies that were created in the 1700s, not only in the North, but also in the South? Folks collectively pooled their resources together, to bury their dead, to have weddings, to buy land together. These are things that go back some 200-plus years.
African Americans throughout their history have come together to pool resources, take control of productive assets, and work to create alternative economies in the face of poverty, limited resources, market failures and/or racial oppression.
Many of the processes have been similar: Join together in the face of a need or a problem, start small and spread the risk widely, use mutual group self-help as motivation, and continuously engage in education and training. Through their modest economic empowerment efforts, many of the groups were able to win greater battles against white landowners, white unions and general economic underdevelopment.
The white economic structure depended on all of these blacks having to buy from the white store, rent from the white landowner. They were going to lose out if you did something alternatively.
In an interview with Truthout, Nembhardt points out it hasn't all been about business and enterprises either,
Definitely for slavery we're talking about informal cooperative economics, not an official co-op business, but just collectively raising money to buy somebody's freedom. One person might buy themselves out and then they would save money to buy their mother or daughter, their wife or their father - that kind of thing. That level of collectivity, people even consider the Underground Railroad to be a kind of collective activity, sort of collective economics, sharing of resources, that kind of thing. The more official relationships I found were what's called mutual aid societies.
It was certainly done clandestinely. Often it wasn't done by slaves, but it would be done by freed people because slaves in some ways couldn't even bury themselves since they didn't own their own bodies. In some ways a lot of these were more once you had a freed population, but some of it would be enslaved, because sometimes they were able to make a little bit of money on the side. If you had a skill, on Sundays you could hire yourself out. Some of the families would have a tiny, little garden by their cabin so they could sell some of that. So, there was a way to make a little bit of money and they tried to pool that to help each other. But a lot of the mutual aid would be through freed people, and there were freed populations during slavery.
There is a basic problem though with economic cooperatives, worker owned cooperatives economic models (beside the fact that if Capital ever actually feels threatened by such its response will be swift and hard). They retain, what John Spritzler writing at New Democracy says is,
...one of the most important defining characteristics of the capitalist model with which we are so familiar today: production of commodities to be sold for a profit in the market place.
The real problem is that the cooperative is trying to function within a capitalist society and trying somehow to avoid the pitfalls that must follow. One of the many problems then is put forth here by Zoltan Zigedy,
Until recently, cooperators and their advocates had one very large arrow in their quiver.
When pressed on the apparent weakness of cooperatives as an anti-capitalist strategy, they would counter loudly: “Mondragon!”.
This large-scale network of over 100 cooperative enterprises based in Spain seemed to defy the criticisms of the cooperative alternative. With 80,000 or more worker-owners, billions of Euros in assets and 14 billion Euros in revenue last year, Mondragon was the shining star of the cooperative movement, the lodestone for the advocates of the global cooperative program.
But then in October, appliance maker Fagor Electrodomesticos, one of Mondragon's key cooperatives, closed with over a billion dollars of debt and putting 5500 people out of work. Worker-employees lost their savings invested in the firm. Mondragon's largest cooperative, the supermarket group Eroski, also owes creditors 2.5 billion Euros. Because the network is so interlocked, these setbacks pose long term threats to the entire system. As one worker, Juan Antonio Talledo, is quoted in The Wall Street Journal (“Recession Frays Ties at Spain's Co-ops”, December 26, 2013): “This is our Lehman moment.”
It is indeed a “Lehman moment”. And like the Lehman Bros banking meltdown in September of 2008, it makes a Lehman-like point. Large scale enterprises, even of the size of Mondragon and organized on a cooperative basis, are susceptible to the high winds of global capitalist crisis. Cooperative organization offers no immunity to the systemic problems that face all enterprises in a capitalist environment. That is why a cooperative solution cannot constitute a viable alternative to capitalism. That is why an island of worker-ownership surrounded by a violent sea of capitalism is unsustainable.
The failures at Mondragon have sent advocates to the wood shed (seewww.geonewsletter.org). Leading theoretical light, Gar Alperovitz, has written in response to the Mondragon blues: “Mondragón's primary emphasis has been on effective and efficient competition. But what do you do when you are up against a global economic recession, on the one hand, or radical cost challenges from Chinese and other low-cost producers, on the other?”
What do you do? Shouldn't someone have thought of that before they offered a road map towards a “third way”? Are “global economic recessions” uncommon? Is low cost production new? And blaming the Chinese is simply unprincipled scapegoating.
Alperovitz goes on: “The question of interest, however - and especially to the degree we begin to face the question of what to do about larger industry - is whether trusting in open market competition is a sufficient answer to the problem of longer-term systemic design.” Clear away the verbal foliage and Alperovitz is admitting that he never anticipated that open market competition would snag Mondragon. Did he think that Fagor sold appliances outsideof the market? Did he think that Mondragon somehow got a free pass in global competition?
Of course the big losers are the workers who have lost their jobs and savings. It would be mistaken to blame the earnest organizers or idealistic cooperators who sincerely sought to make a better, more socially just workplace. They gambled on a project and lost. Of course social justice should not be a gamble.
Many years back already, the Basque Workers Council, a syndicate combining class and national demands, was critical of Mondragon (based in their neck of the woods) since it was formed. In their magazine, they charged the cooperatives with:
We don’t understand why the managers don’t present a proposal to lower the age of retirement in the cooperatives…Instead, they opted, just like owners of private firms, to achieve profitability by the same methods as capitalist firms: lay-offs, increasing productivity, temporary contracts, etc.
Are cooperatives an improvement over your run of the mill capitalist enterprises? Sure. Are they an alternative? I suppose they are a capitalist alternative. Are they a communist alternative? I think not. Are they worthwhile in the fight against capitalism? Probably, so in the war of position waged by the multitude.
Do I wish the Jackson Rising Campaign success?
Am I an expert on the co-operative movement or Mondragon? Nope. I offer my comments with humility. If you want more in depth analysis of these things, you will have to find it on your own. I simply do not see anything that has to operate within a capitalist milieu as being able to separate itself and become some sort of island of communism, not today, not in an era of Empire. Cooperatives are not the goal and they are not a stage on the way to communism. It just does not work that way.
Or so I think anyway.
Many people whom I respect agree with me.
Many other people whom I respect do not.
Jackson Rising: Black Millionaires Won't Lift Us Up, But Cooperation & the Solidarity Economy Might
By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
- Cooperation Jackson is establishing an educational arm to spread the word in their communities about the distinct advantages and exciting possibilities of mutual uplift that business cooperatives offer.
- When Mayor Chokwe Lumumba was still in office, Cooperation Jackson planned to establish a “cooperative incubator.” providing a range of startup services for cooperative enterprises. Absent support from the mayor's office, some MXGM activists observed, a lot of these coops will have to be born and nurtured in the cold.
- Cooperation Jackson aims to form a local federation of cooperatives to share information and resources and to ensure that the cooperatives follow democratic principles of self-management that empower their workers. We've always said “free the land,” observed one MXGM activist. Now we want to “free the labor” as well.
- Finally Cooperation Jackson intends to establish a financial institution to assist in providing credit and capital to cooperatives.