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.


The philosophy of rewilding 

Monbiot 880_0

George Monbiot’s Feral is a well-written, well-researched book arguing that we need to ‘rewild’ our lands, our seas and ourselves. His contention is that our world has gradually shifted away from its wild state as we have sought to domesticate and control it. Lands have been stripped of forests and the ecosystems they supported. The seas have been stripped of its plant life. And we are more disconnected from nature and risk than ever before. We should, he says, reintroduce native species, leave the land and sea alone, live wilder lives.

It’s a polemical book that works on two levels: first person stories about a wilder life pull at the emotions whilst its thorough use of zoological research hits the brain.

There is not, though, any theoretical or philosophical reflection in Feral. Monbiot refers to, and quickly dismisses, the political movement known as ‘anarcho-primitivism’ which wants us to move beyond civilisation and regain our previous wilder lives. And he touches fleetingly on some of the societal and political implications of rewilding. But nothing more. And that’s not a problem – philosophy is not his focus and, after all, you can’t cover everything in a book.

Nevertheless, a look at the philosophy of rewilding would have provided an interesting, different and perhaps more complicating perspective

Rousseau, for example, was big on the link between humans and nature for example. For him, there was an original ‘state of nature’ in which humans were free and happy and which have been stripped away through our politics, states and organisation.

Monbiot isn’t arguing that we should return to some kind of ‘state of nature’ but that we should reintroduce elements of the wild (native species, more risk and so on), which would create something new, wilder and less predictable than our current world.

Nietzsche’s thinking is a bit more complex. Humans are very much part of the natural world, he says, and this is manifested in the repetitive, unimaginative and frankly unremarkable lives most people lead. The concept of the ‘herd mentality’ – which he uses to refer to people’s conformity to mass values – is emblematic of this.

But Nietzsche also has his beloved ‘uberman’: the person who isn’t confined by nature’s limits but lives a striving, creative and remarkable life. This person, in a way, exemplifies the kind of wild life that Monbiot wants.

The problem is, of course, that life would be very difficult if everybody lived like this. Monbiot, in fact, points out that it would not be desirable for everyone to uncontained lives not bounded by laws or moral standards. That’s not an issue for Nietzsche, who says that not everybody is capable of this kind of life anyway: it’s only for the select few, the great.

A less radical and more egalitarian view can be found in Thoreau and one of his interpreters, Jane Bennett.

Thoreau, of course, is known to have given up with civilisation for a year or two and retreated to Walden Woods where he built himself a hut and lived a ludicrously simple life. He documented his daily life so we can all enjoy the mundane existence and occasional insights into the links between human and natural life.

Bennett has a very nice concept that she finds in Thoreau’s writings: ‘the wild’. By this she means those parts of existence that can’t be contained or captured, which elide explanation.

There is always an element of ‘the wild’ which exceeds things she says: it’s those desires that can’t be kept in check, for example, those flowers that appear through cracks in the concrete. The thing is to recognise that ‘the wild’ is always there and, rather than contain it, embrace it.

Embracing ‘the wild’ also appears to be a theme in some of the most prominent critical theory today – in the work of Zizek and Badiou, for example. I can’t imagine either would have any particular interest in the environmental debate about rewilding. But I can imagine that a shift to a world where people live wilder, more risky land radically different lives would appeal to them.

Zizek’s concept of ‘the act’ and Badiou’s ‘event’ are both about people, collectively, deciding they want a change an trying to bring it about without knowing what it will result in  – in other words, they are about people taking a risk.

There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a philosophy of rewilding. It’s not hard to see, though, that the ideas of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Zizek, Badiou and I have no doubt many others (Aristotle Spinoza, Deleuze . . .) would add an extra, though not always unequivocal, dimension to Monbiot’s call to rewild our lives.

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.

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.