Commons and Cooperatives

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* Article: Commons and Cooperatives. Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford. Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, Vol 4, No 1 (2010). Special issue on The New Cooperativism.



"In the last decade, the commons has become a prevalent theme in discussions about collective but decentralized control over resources. This paper is a preliminary exploration of the potential linkages between commons and cooperatives through a discussion of the worker cooperative as one example of a labour commons. We view the worker coop as a response at once antagonistic and accommodative to capitalism. This perspective is amplified through a consideration of five aspects of an ideal-type worker cooperativism: associated labour, workplace democracy, surplus distribution, cooperation among cooperatives, and, controversially, links between worker cooperatives and socialist states. We conclude by suggesting that the radical potential of worker cooperatives might be extended, theoretically and practically, by elaborating connections with other commons struggles in a process we term the circulation of the common."


Commoners and workers

Greig de Peuter and Nick Dyer-Witheford:

"In the last decade, talk of “commons,” “commoning,” and even “commonwealth,” has become, well, common, on the left in discussions of collective but decentralized control over resources ranging from farmlands to fresh water, ocean fisheries, clean air, software code, and genetic information. Starting point for critical accounts of the commons is typically the historical destruction of the collective land of pre-capitalist agricultural communities; in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries these were enclosed by mercantile landlords eager to sell agricultural goods in an expanding world market. Such enclosures were a crucial part of the process of primitive accumulation, creating early capitalism’s dispossessed proletariat from displaced rural populations. These commoners did not go quietly: enclosure faced “hydra-headed” opposition, but these struggles were lost and largely forgotten.

Interest in commons was revived by neoliberalism. Confronting the late-twentieth century onrush of global capital, activists and theorists found in the image of the commons a perspective from which to criticize privatization, deregulation, and expropriation in numerous domains: land wars caused by the continuing enclosure of farmlands and displacement of rural populations by agribusiness, energy mega-projects and urban developers in Asia, Latin America, and Africa; ecological struggles over issues from pesticide poisoning to clear-cutting to species-extinctions and climate change; digital activism such as the free and open-source software movements and ‘creative commons’ challenges to intellectual property law; and resistances to corporate ownership of the genome of plants, animals, and humans. Commons has become a concept connecting multifarious struggles against capital’s old but ongoing primitive accumulation and its new horizons of futuristic, high-tech accumulation.

Beyond resistance to enclosures, commons politics involve renewed attention on the forms of association through which communities can govern shared resources. The once powerful idea of “the tragedy of the commons”--which claimed that, without the protection of private property rights, natural resources will be degraded by neglect--has been not just challenged but reversed by theorists proposing a “cornucopia of the commons” or “inverse commons” in which collectives produce more robust, inventive results than commercial entities. The vocabulary of commons has, moreover, provided anti-corporate and anti-capitalist movements a way of talking about collective ownership without invoking a bad history--without conjuring up “communism,” conventionally narrowly understood as a command economy plus a repressive state. Commons discourse resumes older discussions about “public goods,” but breaks new ground, both in the range of ecological, biogenetic, and cultural domains it addresses, and in its interest in the possibilities for the organization of resources from below, rather than according to the models of command economies or bureaucratic welfare states.

Commons politics, and the discourse around it, has its limitations. The term commons has come to cover a proliferation of proposals, some highly radical, but also some reformist, and others even potentially reactionary. As George Caffentzis points out, neoliberal capital, confronting the debacle of free-market policies, is turning to “Plan B”: limited versions of commons--be it carbon trading models, community development schemes, biotechnology research, and open-source practices--are introduced as subordinate aspects of a capitalist economy. Here voluntary cooperation does not so much subvert capital as subsidize it. Just as the original commons were an element within, rather than an alternative to, a brutally coercive feudal order, so, too, in isolation, today’s commons experiments may just supplement, not challenge, capitalist exploitation. In addition, and germane to the focus of this article, while discourse about commons is popular among environmental, digital, and biotechnological activists, it is often disconnected from labour politics. Talk of commons less frequently intersects with the lexicon of unions, solidarity, and strikes. It thus risks being disassociated from issues of work and wealth, class and poverty--where what is at stake is, still, capital’s denial of commonality via the private control of the means of production. It is as an antidote to this rift that this article discusses the worker cooperative as one form of labour commons.

Worker cooperatives are a historically deep element in counter-capitalist movements from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and are a resurgent component in the contemporary search for economic assemblages alternative to planet-wide capitalism. This paper suggests “the new cooperativism,” to use the term framing this journal issue, be situated in the context of a wide set of struggles over various forms of commons. Linking together commons and cooperatives is, we believe, valuable on several counts. The history of the worker cooperative movement provides a practical demonstration of the art of collective association key to all commoning practices. It also offers an example of decentralized control of common resources that potentially connects the traditions of labour struggle to the modes of activism honed by both ecological and networked radicals. At the same time, the scope and diversity of commons activism indicates the broader currents for social change with which cooperativism must be interwoven if it is to become part of “the coming economies” beyond capital.

Cooperatives can be seen as a response, at once antagonistic and accommodative, to capitalism. This point is amplified in what follows through a brief consideration of five aspects of ideal-type worker cooperative practice: associated labour, workplace democracy, surplus redistribution, cooperation among cooperatives, and, controversially, links between cooperatives and socialist states. Elements of these constitute the worker coop as a labour commons. We suggest in our conclusion, however, that the extension and actualization of the radical potential of worker cooperatives requires interconnection with other commons struggles--a process we term the circulation of the common. Our essay’s perspective is Marxist, but one informed by other traditions of anti-capitalism present in both commons and cooperative struggles." (

Surplus distribution

"One of the traits linking the worker coop to commons traditions concerns the distribution of economic surplus. For George Holyoake, a nineteenth-century historian of the British cooperative movement, the overriding cooperative principle is that of the “distribution of profits to all those who had a hand in generating them, including both consumers and employees.”[46] Commitment to distributive justice is embedded in the cooperative principle of “member economic participation.”[47] Put in Holyoake’s class-conscious terminology, cooperativism is rooted in a belief that “[i]t is more reasonable and better for society and progress that men (sic) should own capital than that capital should own men (sic). Capital is the servant, men (sic) are the masters.”[48] The worker coop is an institution of the labour commons where worker-owners view surplus as a product of their shared efforts, and, as such, ought to be distributed equitably and democratically among those who created it.

Remuneration practices in coops vary widely. MCC, for example, uses the term anticipos, rather than “wages,” to refer to the monies paid out at regular intervals to individual worker-owners as an advance on anticipated earnings. Other coops speak of a “draw” account to which dividends are deposited regularly. In terms of setting compensation levels, some coops might take their cue from private businesses operating in the same sector, others might adopt a strict wage-equity policy as with some worker coops in Argentina, and others still, especially those occupying a competitive industry and employing managers, might impose a ceiling on the differential between the highest and lowest paid occupational levels as with Mondragón.

Some studies have suggested that productivity in coops matches and sometimes exceeds that of conventional firms.[49] If, after wages and operational expenses are covered, the coop has a surplus, this leaves the question of its distribution. This surplus is likely to be modest on account of the cooperative principle of “limited returns on capital.” How surplus is distributed in a cooperative in practice varies of course. But, generally, and in keeping with the cooperative commitment to workplace democracy, worker-owners decide on it through collective mechanisms, and it will typically be set in a coop’s by-laws. Theoretically, however, worker-owners may have the option to vote for an increased individual bonus, or dividend, as a means of consuming the surplus. The attractiveness of this option to individual cooperators would lead some critics to fear that there is a tendency toward self-exploitation as coops come to internalize capitalist behaviour. Marxist critics of coops might argue worker-owners have a strong self-interested incentive to increase their individual return, rather than to invest surplus in fixed capital or reserve savings to make the enterprise more sustainable in the long run; this is one reason some statist socialists who see merit in coops with regard to control of the labour process might advocate publicly-owned worker-managed firms over full worker-ownership." (

Cooperation among cooperatives

"This brings us to an issue central to our thesis about the need for cooperatives to connect to other commons initiatives--that of coops’ relation to the wider economic order. From the perspective of cultivating economic autonomy, the development of links within the cooperative sector itself is of great significance. The sixth principle in the Statement of Cooperative Identity is “cooperation among cooperatives”--an ethos of mutual aid that encourages individual coops to support one another and contribute to the development of a parallel economy through practices of inter-cooperation.[51] In this way, coops would reduce their dependence on, and seek to gain autonomy from, conventional capitalist enterprises; this is the movement-building aspect of cooperativism.

In addition to the formation of coop associations (e.g. International Cooperative Alliance), one possible manifestation of cooperation among cooperatives is inter-cooperative sourcing--the sourcing of products and services from other coops. For instance, a consumer coop might have a purchasing policy in place requiring employees always try sourcing a product from a coop supplier before buying from a conventional firm. Similarly, a worker coop might seek to concentrate on supplying other worker coops or consumer coops. These are examples of a “cooperative economy,” in which an objective is “the creation of a social structure capable of supplanting … profit-making industry.”[52]

Pragmatically, however, inter-cooperative sourcing can be a challenge, as it can be time-intensive simply to find a coop seller; one can imagine, however, a role for cooperatives associations to respond to this dilemma by creating a coop-centered version of the Social Purchasing Portals currently used by a small but growing number of city governments to connect purchasers and sellers who are mutually commitment to “social economy” values.[53]

Another example of inter-coop cooperation is the development of means of financing for coops. Under-capitalization is a chronic problem in the coop sector; this explains the disproportionate number of worker-coops in lines of business that are often more labour intensive rather than capital intensive. Credit unions are hence of strategic importance in the development of a cooperative sub-system. To see these dynamics at work we can turn again to MCC. An ethos of inter-cooperation has been integral to Mondragón since its early days. The success of MCC is often attributed to Caja Laboral, which was positioned at a nodal point within a wider multifunctional coop to aggregate coop surplus and to redistribute it to meet the needs of, and expand, the network of coops.[54] One of the premises behind Caja Laboral is that retaining local jobs depends upon maintaining local control over savings. Caja Laboral retains the surplus, and offers loans, at affordable interest rates, to new coops, and also manages a fund that aids coops in periods of financial need. In addition to these forms of direct financial support, Caja Laboral also offers MCC coops “extensive research assistance on technologies, products, and markets, (and) in-depth training in cooperative principles of management.”[55] The new coops that are supported with the collective’s surplus potentially provide services or manufacture goods that serve the needs of other coops in the network, and therefore reduce MCC’s reliance on external capitalist suppliers.

There are also examples of coops and associations based in the North establishing education programs where groups of people visit the South and aid communities in setting up coops, as an approach to cooperative international development.


Practices of cooperation among coops suggest the possibility that within the overall global system of capital a non-capitalist sub-system might grow its counter-power, reduce reliance on the primary system, and potentially render it redundant. In inter-coop cooperation we see at least a nascent possibility of how the social product of the labour commons can contribute to the expansion of a new system which seeks to continually enlarge its autonomy." (

Capitalist co-option or circulating common?

J.K. Gibson-Graham and their colleagues problematize what they see as a “capitalocentrism” suffusing anti-capitalist discourse.[69] It is suggested that the categories of mode of production used by Marx are to be understood not as “historic chronology but as a formal typology that could be present in any combination.”[70] A worker coop could thus be viewed as a “communal enterprise” within and against capital’s dominant distributive logic to the extent that in a worker cooperative “the workers who produce the wealth also collectively appropriate and distribute the surplus associated with their productive economic activity.”[71] How surplus wealth is managed is, as we noted earlier, one of the sharpest distinctions between a worker coop and a conventional capitalist firm. Does this mean that worker-owners, in a situation where common ownership over assets is combined with labour’s sovereignty over the surplus, have transcended capitalist exploitation?[72]

Some would regard this line of questioning as naïve. Here it must be noted that running throughout this paper is a familiar but fundamental point: that, from the perspective of anti-capitalism, the worker coop is a deeply ambivalent organizational form. The issue is not only that worker coops are vastly uneven in terms of the political commitments animating them. Even more basic is the ambiguity arising from how worker coops operate inside the wider capitalist economy and therefore escape neither the discipline of the market nor the hegemony of the commodity form.[73] This market containment is one of the reasons why the radical labour movement and some socialist theorists have been skeptical of coops as a means to counteract capital.[74] We have already cited Marx’s critique of the tendency of cooperatives within capitalism to assume “dwarfish forms.” The radical economist Robin Hahnel expands on this concern:

[W]hen worker-owned firms must compete in goods, labour, and financial markets with capitalist firms which adhere to the bottom line there is relentless pressure on worker-owners to abandon prioritizing the quality of work life and fair systems of compensation, and to succumb to exploitative relations with suppliers, customers, external parties, and the environment.[75]

Elements of a cooperative ethos can even be framed as a way of revitalizing capitalism when capitalists confront declining productivity and employee morale. Take, for example, the logic at play in Richard Reeves’ article “We Love Capitalism,” published in The New Statesman: “The solution is this: for the people who work in an enterprise to have a real financial stake in its long-term performance. Firms in which employees are also the ‘co-owners’ are more productive, with more engaged employees.” Reeves is careful to stress that this is not about “reheated cooperatives,” but rather “the next-generation capitalist business model.” He refers to this model as “socialism without the state”--or “capitalism with more capitalists.”[76]

For worker coops to avert a co-optive fate they must be part of a larger vector of transformation moving beyond capitalism. The failure of authoritarian state socialism, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, and, recently, its catastrophic financial crisis, have prompted a wave of new thinking about the form of such system-change, such as the schematic models of “life after capitalism” offered by Michael Albert, or the more fluid conceptualizations of a post-capitalist politics proposed by Gibson-Graham.[77] As a contribution to this discussion, we propose the concept of “the circulation of the common.”[78] It is, again, Marx who provides our point of reference--not, however, so much as a theorist of the seizure of state power but rather as an analyst of how modes of production emerge, grow, and become self-perpetuating.

Marx deemed the “cell form” of capitalism to be the commodity, a good produced for exchange between private owners.[79] In the “circuit of capital” the commodity is exchanged for money, which buys resources in turn transformed into more commodities.[80] This cycle is expressed in the formula, M_C – . . . P . . . C' ─ M'. Money (M) purchases as commodities (C) labour, machinery, and raw materials for production (P) to create new commodities (C') that are sold for more money (M'), part of which is retained as profit, part used to purchase more means of production to make more commodities; rinse and repeat. This becomes an auto-catalytic, self-generating, boot-strapping process.

Within this circuit, there are different kinds of capital. The transformation of commodities into money (C-M) is the role of mercantile capital; the production of commodities by means of commodities (P) is conducted by industrial capital, and the conversion of money capital into productive capital is the ostensible task of financial capital (M-C). This is the growth mechanism that converts the cell form of the commodity into what Marx termed more “complex and composite” forms, an entire capitalist metabolism, the path from capital’s molecular level to its molar manifestation. If we think of a rotating sphere not only accelerating in velocity as its speeds its circulatory processes but expanding in diameter as it fills more and more social and geographic space, we have the image of global capital.

If the cellular form of capitalism is the commodity, the cellular form of society beyond capital is, we suggest, the common. A commodity is a good produced for exchange, a common a good produced to be shared. Exchange presupposes private owners between whom it occurs. Sharing presupposes collectivities within which it occurs. The circuit of the common traces how these collectivities--which we term association--organize shared resources into productive ensembles that create more commons, which in turn provide the basis for new associations. So in a rewritten circulation formula, C represents not a Commodity but Commons, and the transformation is not into Money but Association. The basic formula is therefore: A ─ C ─ A'. This can then be elaborated into A ─ C . . . P . . . C' ─ A'.

Just as the circulation of capital subdivides into different types of capital--mercantile, industrial, financial--we should recognize differing moments in the circuit of the common. Let’s call them eco-social, networked, and labour commons. Eco-social commons would be institutions managing the biosphere not as a commercial resource, but as the shared basis for any continuing form of human association--collective agencies for planetary climate control, fishery reserves, protection of watersheds, and prevention of pollution. Eco-social commons indicates that the same planning logic also encompasses epidemiological and public health care provisions, regulation of the food supply, biotechnological monitoring, all understood, again, not as strategic opportunities for commercial exploitation, but as a precondition of species life.

By networked commons we mean communication systems that unleash, rather than repress, the tendency of digital technologies to create non-rivalrous goods and common pool resources that overflow intellectual property regimes. We are thinking not merely of liberal “creative commons” initiatives, but of large-scale adoption in public institutions of open-source practices; the remuneration of cultural producers in ways that allow the relaxation of commercial intellectual-property rights; plus the education and infrastructures that make access to peer-to-peer systems a public utility as common as the telephone.

By labour commons we mean the democratized organization of productive and reproductive work. And this brings us back to worker cooperatives, in which the workplace is an organizational commons, the labour performed is a commoning practice, and the surplus generated, a commonwealth. Worker coops would not, we emphasize, be the sole component of a labour commons. Their growth would have to go alongside (and could potentially be aided by) wider measures; for example, we think that there is much to be said for the combination of worker coops with a universal basic income, conceived not as a glorified welfare handout, but as an acknowledgement of the contribution to collective productivity of every life.[81] But accompanying such a guarantee of basic material conditions of dignity, worker cooperatives would, as an expression of self-organized associated labour, be exemplary “cells” building a larger commonwealth metabolism.

To speak of the circulation of the common is to propose connecting eco-social, labour, and networked commons to reinforce and enable one another, creating a circuit in which the common goods and services produced by associations at one point in the circuit provide inputs and resources for associations at another, making what Gibson-Graham call a “generative commons.”[82] So, for example, we can envisage large-scale eco-social planning seeding various worker cooperatives and associative enterprises, which then in turn generate the goods and services required for ecological, public health, and welfare planning--including the non-rivalrous networked commons, a pool of free knowledge and innovation to be used in turn in the planning and production of the eco-social and labour commons.

The three moments in our model of the circulation of the commons--ecological, labour and network or communicational--map onto the three moments of the circulation of capital--financial, industrial, and mercantile--yet also signal a profound alteration in their logic. While the financial circuit of capital defines that system’s prime directive, making money from money, the ecological circuit specifies a contrary priority, the preservation and enhancement of the biospheric commons; where the industrial moment of capital’s circulation concerns the appropriation of productive surpluses by owners, the labour moment in commons circulation specifies the sharing of these surpluses by workers and their communities; and while the mercantile moment of capital hinges on commodity exchange as capital’s most important form of social interaction, the communicational moment in the commons involves the dialogic interaction necessary for democratic planning and an economics of association. Thus the circuit of the common and the circuit of capital are symmetrical yet shifted, homologous but displaced from one another by transition to a set of alternative social priorities.

Theoretical and abstract as these formulations may sound, we find concrete and practical demonstrations of the circulation of commons in the various experiments in solidarity economics gaining traction in Latin America and elsewhere.[83] Brazil’s solidarity economy system, for example, arises from movements of workers and landless peasants, infused by liberation theology traditions, and by the history of quilombos (self-governing communities) of escaped slaves. Strongest in agricultural production, the sector also includes industrial, service, and software components. It links workers cooperatives and self-managed enterprises with alternative financial institutions, consumer cooperatives, and fair trade systems in an attempt to create a self-reinforcing network of economic activities in which participants’ activities are informed by an ethical and political sense of shared social responsibilities. The units of these networks are conceived not just as individually following principles of social and environmental justice, but providing inputs for each other, to create an inter-cooperative, self-expanding system.

Euclides Mance, a leading solidarity economist, writes of “socially based cooperation networks” reinforcing their component parts until “progressive boosting” enables them to move from a “secondary, palliative or complementary sphere of activity” to a “socially hegemonic mode of production.”[84] This solidarity economy now garners some support, however equivocal, from the Worker Party government elected in 2002, which, for example, funds experiments in the development of digital tools not only to map participant organizations, but also to track inputs, outputs, and wastes so that the sector can be increasingly integrated and self-sufficient. The difficulties and pitfalls faced by Brazilian solidarity economics under a Lula government that often continues to follow neoliberal policies are manifest; nonetheless, it is a striking example of the sort of cell-growth of commons envisaged here.[85]

Such a circulation of commons can only arise from the circulation of struggles, that is, from social experiments created in resistance to the expanding circulation of capital. As we noted at the outset, fights for commons--terrestrial, networked, labour--are underway. The circulation of the common is a forward projection of these contests; it is a concept of emergence. If capital is an immense heap of commodities, commonism, as we envisage it, will be a multiplication of commons. The idea of the circulation of the commons proposes a systemic transformation, but starts small, with cellular model of commons and association that is simple, even rudimentary. It then scales, at levels from the domestic to the municipal to the planetary. The totality it envisages is a multiplicitous one--a complex, composite non-capitalist society composed by an interaction of different kinds of commons with distinct, specific logics.

This is not necessarily a model of changing the world without seizing power. The role of the state in co-management initiatives, such of those of the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments we noted earlier, may be vital in allowing the circulation of commons to attain a critical mass. Our concept does, however, suggest that growth and interconnection of the commons have to precede such state interventions, to prefiguratively establish the necessary preconditions. It must also grow beyond the moment of such direct interventions, in a proliferation of self-starting components that exceeds centralized control. In this sense, the idea of the circulation of the commons is a concept from and for the Marxian tradition of autonomous free association.

Even as we acknowledge the many constraints on and co-options of worker cooperatives, we think it unwise to dismiss their contribution to widening the horizon of commons politics. Despite their contradictions, worker coop experiments are part of a long tradition of troubling the subject of waged-labour (associated labour), developing an ethics of production (workplace democracy), sharing wealth produced in common (surplus distribution), demonstrating the state can aid in the encouragement of alternatives to capitalist enterprise (state support), and fostering a parallel, community solidarity economy (cooperation among cooperatives). Furthering the radical potential of these labour commons initiatives, rather than reducing them to modest forms compatible with capitalism, depends, however, on worker coops becoming part of a broader movement--what we term the circulation of the common--with the explicit aim of creating not just more work but rather workable alternatives to the dominant mode of production: cooperating to produce not more jobs under capitalism, but more of life in common." (