Global capital is producing it’s own grave-diggers

Karl Marx is at his most prophetic and poetic when writing about the big contradiction of capitalism:

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.


a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Marx was no doubt overly optimistic – and simplistic – in his thinking that capitalism, by creating an impoverished class of people, will lead to that group organising, rising up and overthrowing the system to create something new and better.

But if the last few years have shown anything (and I’m talking about Brexit and Trump, yes, but also the rise of European far right parties and religious extremism) it is that global capitalism has created anger and discontent that cannot easily be controlled.



Name me a village where a Nobel prize was won

brooklyn-nyc-4ea28a2f“Some cynic said to me, name me a village where a Nobel prize was won.” I heard Professor Ricky Burdett of the LSE’s Cities Institute say this on an excellent piece of radio on London’s development the other day and it got me thinking about the city and the countryside.

The city – as a major, heavily populated and diverse conurbation – is routinely lionised as the place for creativity, innovation, revolution. Yes, there are major problems to deal with – slums, overcrowding, pollution etc – but, the argument goes, cities are a melting pot for the creation of new ideas.

This praise for the city tends to go hand in hand with criticism of the countryside, often as conservative and backward looking, as Burrett’s Nobel prize comment implies.

Cities are of course wonderful  for all the reasons cited, but at the same time the countryside needs defending. I don’t know if any Nobel prizes have been won by villagers, but that’s beside the point. (Nobel prizes are won by individuals often  in universities who may or may not live in city itself.)  There are other goods that come from people living in rural areas:

It offers vital space for reflection. Cities are places of investment and innovation, they are places where things are made to happen. The countryside offers time for thought and reflection. Frederic Gros’s book, The Philosophy of Walking, shows how thinkers like Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau used the time and space of walking in the wild to think deeply.

 It is less consumerist. The city is awash with commerce – fast paced living where acquisition and new experiences are endlessly consumed. So many of these, from the latest purchase to meals out, are transitory experiences. What Karl Marx said of capitalism is most accurate of all in its depiction of the city: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Much of life in the countryside is different: slower, with less intense but perhaps deeper experiences llike walking, gardening, being home, and so on.

It’s home to experiments in different ways of living and organising.  With such overcrowding and inequality, it is said – by David Harvey In Rebel Cities and Mike Davies in Planet of Slums among others – that the city is likely to be the site of resistance and revolution.  But at the same time, rural areas have often been places for new movements to emerge too. To name a few: the low ;impact living movement is a network of people trying to live off the land and off grid. ‘back to the landers’ in the ’60s and ’70s were aiming for self-sufficiency as an alternative to capitalist development; the landless peasants movement in Latin America, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the network of self governing villages in Southern Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

 It tends to create tighter bonds of community. A big area of discussion for city builders is how to create a sense of community in large and often transitory city neighbourhoods.  In the countryside, by contrast, communities are often well established and connections between individuals are strong because they are so frequent: through schools, social activities, work, travel, meeting regularly, people see one another so regularly in different contexts that multiple tight bonds develop easily and quickly.

None of this is to say that the countryside is better than the city or that it doesn’t have its problems. Just as the city as its good and bads, rural areas do too. But it is to say that the countryside can offer, among other things, non-consumerist spaces for reflection and experimentation – and for that reason we shouldn’t just talk about cities as the places for progressive ways of life.

The reality of jobs and growth – a view from a bike


Yesterday I spent my lunch break on a bit of a cycle around the border of Manchester city centre and Salford. I didn’t see anything special, or remarkable, but learnt a lot, I think, about the economy, jobs, work and growth in Manchester’s apparently booming economy.

Building work and infrastructure development were everywhere in the centre of Manchester, it was hard to move; the cars were snarled up and people were busily hurrying between work and shops.

The inner suburbs of Salford, down Liverpool Road into Pendleton, were different: shops few and far between, the building projects were on freeze, people were on the streets, but just walking, or in groups talking, hanging out, not rushing around.

Pendleton precinct was busier, apparently overflowing with supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl and a Tesco Extra, all in one small space, competing on price for the same customers. Very different from fifteen years ago when I lived here, with just one small Tesco available to people without transport.

The Salford University strip was all-but abandoned in the summer, save for lone international students; and the old performing arts building that previously brought music (mostly a crash of drums) to a corner of Lower Broughton has now closed, moved to a state-of-the-art facility at Salford Quays.

Greater Manchester, apparently, is the only city in the UK that grew its economy as much as London in the decade before the recession. But a short ride like this, around the Manchester – Salford border, tell us more than growth figures can.

It’s not just the startling difference between the glass high rises of the centre and the concrete high rises of Pendleton. Or the difference between the busy workers of the city centre and the slower pace of the Salford streets.

It’s more than this: in the heart of city, in this shiny model of regeneration and growth, the faces of people hurrying to and from work, nipping out for a sandwich, off to the shops of a lunch break, tell all: Manchester is not a city of high powered jobs and executive lunches groaning under the weight of economic growth; it’s one of mundane office work and plastic sandwiches. Some might be enjoying the spoils, but for most Manchester’s is a service sector economy where growth has little meaning for the people with the jobs, let alone for those without.

The ‘unknown knowns’ of the co-operative movement


I’ve just finished reading Slavoj Zizek’s short book the concept of the ‘event’. It’s his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture via a series of distasteful jokes.

Early on he refers to the idea of ‘unknown knowns.’ He is referencing the famous quote from the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

‘Unknown knowns’ are a category Rumsfeld doesn’t refer to but Zizek sees as the essential one he missed: they are those things which we unconsciously follow (like habits or prejudices), the things which structure much of our lives without us even realising it. For Zizek, philosophy’s role is to unmask unknown knowns.

It takes major events, transformation and eruptions to bring unknown knowns to the surface. And if the co-op movement has experienced anything over the last few months its those.

So, what unknown knowns have the last few months brought to the surface for the co-op movement?  What are the big assumptions that the co-operative movement blindly follows?

My view is that we’ve been following a number of mistaken assumptions.

 Unknown known one: we think we’re better than other businesses

We seem to have been working under the assumption that co-ops are ‘better’ than other businesses. But we don’t seem to have been clear how co-ops are better.

We say co-ops build a better world and try to find empirical proof, but do we really understand what makes co-ops different, how they build a better world? What framework should we use to show the difference co-ops make? What makes co-operation different from charity, or CSR?

When co-ops were politicised organisations they provided workers with fairer conditions or practical alternatives to industrial capitalism. What are co-ops now? Businesses? Social movements? Capitalist? Anti-capitalist? A-capitalist? Anarchist? Socialist? Something else?

Unknown known two: we can play the capitalist game

We seem to have been assuming that co-ops can compete with conventional businesses in a market whilst also remaining true to the things that make them better.

Is this right? Can co-ops manage this balance? A number of flat pay worker co-ops indicate yes; the troubles at Mondragon or the Co-op Bank suggest not.

Unknown known three: we’ve lost our purpose

The big one, which perhaps incorporates all of these: ultimately, what we’ve known for some time but seem to have been unable to articulate, is that today’s co-operative movement lacks a clear sense of what it is for, and just as importantly what is against.

This is what the leading Cambridge economist  Ha-Joon Chang was telling us earlier this year:

“My interpretation is that the co-operative movement has lost faith in its own identity. If you don’t take pride in the fact you’re a co-op, you don’t tell other people and therefore people don’t know who you are or what you stand for. If you don’t have faith in yourself, why should other people take you seriously? I think that’s the trouble. There is an identity crisis.”

What would Zizek do if he identified a mistaken assumption? Make a bad joke probably.

What should we do? We need to make a plan, something that sets us on the path to answering these big questions about what co-ops are and aren’t.

Capitalism and mutualism beyond borders

Listening again to one of Zizek’s lectures, he makes a great point – that the Occupy movement’s major insight and motivation was that national democratic institutions are insufficient for controlling global finance and capital because the latter go, by definition, beyond borders.

It takes a prod like this to remind you why economic democracy is a good thing – it means that democratic control is structured around business and economies not around historically constituted geographic units.

So, one way to give the people some control of global finance is through co-operative and mutual structures that give people a democratic say and control over the businesses that affect their daily lives.

It’s not everything, it’s not sufficient on its own and there are big questions about size, scale, how it’s organised, local control …

But it’s a reminder of why economic democracy is a key element response to the control of capital that ignores borders.

Should anti-capitalists use the tools of capitalism?

Recently I’ve come across various organisations that want to challenge or subvert capitalism but use the techniques and tools of capitalism to do it.

The People’s Supermarket, a community owned co-operative based on volunteers contributing time  not money, has invested in high quality branding and design. Emily James’s new environmental action film, ‘Just do it: get off your arse and save the world’, has aimed and succeeded in getting a higher search engine ranking than Nike for ‘just do it’ through search engine optimisation (SEO). Worker co-operatives are running businesses on non-hierarchical lines with the workers as owners and decision-makers, but they are competing in the capitalist economy with capitalist businesses …

The question always comes to me, should organisations challenging capitalism use its techniques and tools? There are lots of different ways of answering this question, so it’s interesting to see what thinkers like Foucault or Zizek might make of it.

For Foucault society is made up of power relations. The idea of a society without power relations, he says, is an abstraction. But he also points out that “where there is power, there is resistance.” Foucault is not making some optimistic point about how, when people try to control others, then they tend to resist. He is saying that whenever people try to control others, there are ofte unintended effects.

In Discipline and Punish, for example, he points out that there are various techniques used during early capitalist times to produce docile, obedient prisoners, but these techniques also produce ‘delinquents’ who have been treated violently, forced to band together in prison, and who leave prison to find that they are labelled as criminals, cannot find work and can only rely on former prisoners.

 I think the same point can be applied to the techniques of advanced capitalism like SEO and branding. These techniques have been developed to enable businesses to maximise appeal and visibility amongst potential customers. But they have unintended consequences that challenge businesses’ market dominance they. Anti-capitalists can use SEO to undermine the success of Nike and generate awareness of anti-consumerist activism. They can use branding and design to draw people into a shop that doesn’t make profits for shareholders. Or they can use business processes developed in order to run a successful worker owned and run enterprise.  

 So, thinking with Foucault, there’s a beautiful irony at work here.

 I can’t help thinking, though, that if non-capitalist enterprises use branding, co-operatives operate in the market or activists use SEO, doesn’t capitalism carry on through them? Using branding appeals to consumerism, and so consumption and consumerism continue through this supposed alternative. Worker co-operatives easily lose their sense of radicalness once they are threatened with falling profits and can become more and more capitalist in order to keep going or expand. SEO is a tool based on invasive techniques and treats people as individual, isolated consumers.

 So there’s a real danger that using these techniques is actually perpetuating capitalism.

 Zizek, insightful as ever, makes this point in First as Tragedy, then as Farce. He talks about “the version of capitalism which is emerging as hegemonic out of the present crises is that of a ‘social responsible’ eco-capitalism” – the kinds of organisations that support Fairtrade, eco-friendly products, worker participation etc, but despite these niceties continue the exploitation inherent in capitalism – some profiting from the labour of others and thus leaving inequalities and exploitation intact.

 And this is potentially what we see here. By using branding, by seeking the top search engine ranking, by trying to create a worker owned island competing in the market, there is a constant danger of subverting one capitalist tool (branding, SEO, management hierarchy), but reinforcing others.

In fact, Zizek goes further, pointing out that even if anti-capitalists do not perpetuate capitalism, their demands may still be subsumed into capitalism. Capitalism is endlessly flexible. This participative and inclusive eco-capitalism has in fact developed as a way of incorporating the demands that emerged following May 68. “In such a way, capitalism is transformed and legitimized as an egalitarian project.”

Zizek is very pessimistic about the idea of using capitalist tools – he looks to a “shattering ethico-politcal act”, completely outside the democratic capitalist system, that will destroy it entirely.

I’m cautious but not so pessimistic. I think anti-capitalists should use capitalist tools and techniques, but when they do they should do two things.

First, anti-capitalists should always ensure that capitalist tools are seen as means to an anti-capitalist end, not ends in themselves. Once a co-operative views profitability as its main purpose then it loses its significance – profitability is a means for a co-operative to practice, develop and promote a different way of organising the economy. Once branding is seen as something important in itself or used for profit making purposes then it loses its raison d’être – branding for anti-capitalists is to raise awareness and understanding, nothing more.  

Only by being constantly vigilant about means and ends is it possible to ensure that anti-capitalists do not get incorporated into some kinds of new version of capitalism.

Second, it is important that using capitalist tools and techniques for anti-capitalist purposes is not done in isolation. If ever there is a way for an organisation to be subsumed into a new version of capitalism it is by doing something alone, without connection to other organisations, movements and activists.

What is need is to form what Laclau and Mouffe call a ‘chain of equivalence’ that unites different movements together under a common banner. Co-operatives, environmental activists, the open source movement, etc all need to unite and link together so that the organisations do not get isolated.

So my feeling is yes, use capitalist techniques and tools, but be constantly aware that they are means not ends and try to link up with all the others to form a barrage that challenges the hegemony of capitalism.

The passing of [the] market economy can become the beginning of an era of unprecedented freedom. Juridical and actual freedom can be made wider and more general than ever before; regulation and control can achieve freedom not only for the few, but for all. Freedom not as an appurtenance of privilege, tainted at the source, but as a prescriptive right extending far beyond the narrow confines of the political sphere into the intimate organization of society itself. Thus will old freedoms and civic rights be added to the fund of new freedoms generated by the leisure and security that industrial society offers to all. Such a society can afford to be both just and free.

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (1957)