Cooperative Market Economy

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Eric Olin Wright:

"The oldest vision for an emancipatory alternative to capitalism is the worker-owned firm. Capitalism began by dispossessing workers of their means of production and then employing them as wage-laborers in capitalist firms. The most straightforward undoing of that dispossession is its reversal through worker-owned firms. In the 19th century the cooperative movement was animated by a strongly anti-capitalist ideology and constituted a central idea of the socialist currents that Marx derided as “Utopian Socialism” and subsequently became loosely identified with some currents of anarchism. Proudhon, one of the principle targets of Marx’s attack, saw workers cooperatives both as the cellular units of a socialist alternative to capitalism and as the centerpiece of the struggle against capitalism.

In 1853 he described the principle thus:

- “Mutuality, reciprocity exists when all the workers in an industry, instead of working for an entrepreneur who pays them and keeps their products, work for one another and thus collaborate in the making of a common product whose profits they share amongst themselves. Extend the principle of reciprocity as uniting the work of every group, to the Workers’ Societies as units, and you have created a form of civilization which from all points of view – political, economic and aesthetic – is radically different from all earlier civilizations.”

Building worker’s cooperatives, therefore, became, for Marx, a legitimate element of socialist strategy, although he continued to believe that they would be contained within relatively narrow limits so long as capitalist power remained intact:

- “To save the industrious masses, co-operative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means. Yet the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor…..To conquer political power has, therefore, become the great duty of the working classes.”

Workers coops have continued throughout the subsequent history of capitalist development, although today, with a few notable exceptions, they are mostly relatively small, local operations. When they are successful, they often tend to evolve in the direction of more conventional capitalist firms, hiring non-member employees as a way of expanding production rather than enlarging the full membership of the producer coop itself. While many, perhaps most, people who work as members in cooperatives continue to see them as an alternative way of life to working in a conventional capitalist firm, for most participants they are no longer part of a broad strategy for building an alternative to capitalism and are certainly not part of an organized anti-system strategy as was the case in the 19th Century Cooperative Movement. Nevertheless, worker-owned cooperatives remain one of the central expressions a democratic egalitarian vision of an alternative way of organizing economic activity.

Such mutualist worker coops would cooperate with each other through a kind of voluntary federal structure which would facilitate coordination and joint action. Mutualism within production and voluntary federalism among productive units would form the basis of a new society, initially within capitalism itself and eventually replacing capitalism." (

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