I do claim that what is sold to us today as freedom is something from which this more radical dimension of freedom and democracy has been removed — in other words, the belief that basic decisions about social development are discussed or brought about involving as many as possible, a majority. In this sense, we do not have an actual experience of freedom today. Our freedoms are increasingly reduced to the freedom to choose your lifestyle.

Zizek (via palewidow)


If Vodafone was a mutual

What would happen if Vodafone was a mutual, owned by everyday people rather than shareholder investors?

Vodaphone announced recently that it was selling its 45% stake in the US mobile company, Verizon Wireless, for over £80 billion. With much praise in the press, Vodaphone said that £66 billion of the sale will go to its shareholders. With nearly 50%of its shareholders in the UK, this will give a much-needed boost to the UK economy, equivalent to around 2% of GDP and some in the press said, akin to quantitative easing.

That’s a lot of money, no doubt, and it shows the ability of businesses to generate and distribute wealth.

The thing is, though, over 75% of Vodafone’s shares are held by ten investment institutions. So only a small amount of money will go into the pockets of real people or into the economy in any meaningful sense. Most of the pay-out will be re-invested in the markets with little tangible impact for economic wellbeing and the wider economy.

If it was a mutual things would be different.

If Vodafone were owned by its 19.3 million UK customers, rather than shareholders, each customer owner would get around £3,500, giving them a significant chunk of money. If Vodafone were owned by its 84,000 staff, the share each would receive would be considerably larger.

Not only would a mutually owned Vodafone put money in people’s pockets and boost the economy, it would share the wealth generated by the business amongst around 40% of the UK adult population.

And that’s without even mentioning tax. Which, it turns out, Vodafone will pay very little of because of its clever tax arrangements. But that’s a different story.

Justifying co-operation

The co- operative movement has never settled on a justification for its member owned model of business.

The pioneers of the movement – Robert Owen, William King, the Rochdale Pioneers – seemed to see human dignity as the reason. By sharing profits more equally everyone is more likely to be able to live a decent life.

At the heart of this are values of equality, fairness, autonomy. In fact, international agreement on values and principles unite a global movement.

Today, though, when we justify co-operatives, we talk about far more instrumental goals rather than these values. We say things like:

– Co-operatives create economic stability because they are guided by long term member interests, not short term profits.

– Co-operatives are more productive because the employees benefit from the business’s successes

– Co-operatives are more profitable because workers and consumers are engaged

– Co-operatives do good things with their profits, supporting local communities or helping the environment

– Co-operating is a rational thing to do because it helps individuals achieve what they want

All of these arguments are risky because they depends on facts – and facts are tricky.

Co-operatives can create stability, but they are businesses like others and suffer from the vagaries of the market or mistaken expansion plans etc. See the UK’s Co-operative Bank for the latest example.

Co-operatives can be more productive or profitable. But for every business success there are ten micro enterprise co-operatives, with no ability or desire to grow.

Co-operation can be a rational way to maximise self interest. But only if the situation is right, and when the business environment incentivises non co-operative business, co-operation is likely to be the optimal strategy only occasionally.

Co-operatives do good social and environmental work. But so do many businesses, whether large businesses with huge CSR budgets or small ethical companies.

The point is that all these instrumental arguments justify co-operation on instrumental grounds as an instrumental means to some other tangible, easily grasped end that can be measured – co-operatives are good for business, they help individuals achieve, they do good work with their profits etc.

But all of them are let down by the facts.

So my suggestion: let’s stop reaching for instrumental economic goals as the justification for co-operation and go back to the values that, often unspoken, are and always have been at the heart of co-operation: equality, autonomy, fairness, dignity.

It’s the strongest justification for co-operation there is, but we just seem to keep overlooking it.

What disgruntled workers might do instead of strike

Yesterday the TUC predicted that workers will get increasingly angry in the coming months, with the economy slowly getting back on track yet workers not seeing the benefit.

The argument is a classic one with much precedent in political thought and practice – if you oppress people they will, in the end, resist. Zizek refers to it as ‘the return of the Real’. Foucault says ‘where there is power there is resistance’ and Hardt and Negri say ‘It is completely obvious that those who are exploited will resist’.

The TUC is predicting organised strikes, with unions leading the way, in a campaign for better conditions and pay for workers.

Political thought and practice for centuries, however, also indicates that this is an optimistic prediction.

Even if you ignore the fact that traditional unions have fewer and fewer members, or that unions in the private sector are very different from the public sector, its notable that resistance is often more complex and difficult to identify than this.

Sometimes resistance to oppression is through union led strikes, aimed at better conditions. Often not.

Here are three ways that this resistance may play out instead.

1. Dissipation. Nietzsche points out that in Ancient Athens the desires and passions of those who might refuse the system were channelled into ‘agonistic’ processes that enabled them to contest and argue without endangering the system. It had the effect of dissipating disorder.

Today, many workplaces provide employee engagement channels , which dissipate resistance through formal processes for gathering workers’ views, offering elements of devision making power and trying to make the organisation feel ‘theirs’.

This kind of absorption of resistance is a likely outcome of much resistance, meaning change will be minimised.

2. Resentiment. For many, resistance to oppression is often individualised, not conscious and therefore hard to identify. It results in unconscious, unarticulated and generally negative actions. It’s a bit like what Nietzsche calls ‘resentiment’ – a kind of seething, unarticulated sense of injustice that occasionally manifests itself.

At work it might mean simply being bad workers – spending time on Facebook, talking, going slow, pushing break times, recalcitrance, etc.

Outside work, people like Zizek have pointed out that racism and far right politics are easy responses to oppression, where an ‘other’, rather than inequalities in workplace, are blamed by indigenous workers for their problems. Similarly, events like the riots in Paris or London could well be complex examples of people resisting the everyday sense of inequality they face.

With less and less union influence and reach, these different forms of largely unhealthy resistance are likely to be more and more common.

3. Events. Occasionally bigger acts occur, when those who feel excluded assert their right, together, to be included.

These are momentous and rare occasions. Sometimes they are in the workplace; often they are something much bigger.

This what Ranciere calls ‘politics’ and Badiou calls an ‘event’.

We have seen these events in the Arab Spring, for example. In the UK this has not been much seen; the seeds of it may have been in Occupy. It requires more than trade union organisation for a tactical end like better conditions; it is a collective action, by the people, in the name of a bigger goal.

Mass action for workplace democracy, more equal pay, or decent jobs for all, for example.

Whether this will be the outcome of the current oppression remains to be seen; certainly, it’s something very different from the vision of our unions.

The point is that workers may be well be fed up, feel oppressed and seek to resist – whether that’s conscious or unconscious.

But the TUC’s prediction that this will take the form of strikes for better conditions is optimistic at best; this might happen, but we are far more likely to see opposition dissipated and resentiment grow, with the tiny, tiny chance of a political event.