Co-Creativity of Labor

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A value revolution in labor

Excerpted from Hilary Wainwright:

"People’s expectations, or at least sense of legitimate claims, are for cultural equality as well as moves toward economic equality, and for meaningful and dignified work to match the decades of expansion of higher education.

Economic initiatives shaped by social and ecological values are now coming from many different places, many beyond the familiar sources implied by traditional economic models. They make a long list, including workers getting together more frequently than ever since the 1970s to form co-ops rather than accept the doom laden dictates of the banks, and workers and users of renewable energy similarly choosing co-operation to combine skills to meet needs on the basis of shared values.

There are also the spreading networks of autonomous hackers and geeks creating open, non-proprietorial, software and therefore effectively creating a key part of the infrastructure of today’s society as a digital commons (see ‘Viral spirals’ and more recently ‘The coming of the commons’ in Red Pepper). And the list also includes trade unionists who are taking on the role of organising for the common good in defence, or for the improvement of public services, or to push their company towards climate jobs.

Economic creativity is evident also among activists involved in the movements of the squares and Occupy, for whom these convergences of indignation have also been platforms that enabled them to collaborate and create or strengthen economic alternatives. All kinds of co-ops, cultural and social centres have emerged or been strengthened by these combinations of refusal and creation.

What this variety of activity has in common is that it is based on collaborative forms of creativity: creativity that is non-proprietary, not patented or tied to private property.

They all involve forms of labour which cannot be understood in the same terms as the conventional wage contract – the way in which, at present, workers are exactly separated from their creativity, selling it to those who own the means of production. They illustrate ways in which labour could be self-organised, on the basis of social values underlying its purpose, use or context.

The spread of information, knowledge and communication technologies not only enables theoretical expertise and practical knowledge to be shared on a previously unimaginable scale, but also creates tools for co-operation and self-managed co‑ordination of the most complex, multi-actor, transnational processes. (These technologies, though, are also a sphere of ambiguity and contestation, as such tools for co-ordination can also be used as tools of sophisticated forms of management surveillance and control.)

All these developments also illustrate the significance of democracy – transparency, participatory decision-making, the recognition of and means of sharing plural sources of knowledge – as a source of productivity, a base for a new economics. The Wisconsin-based academic Joel Rogers calls this ‘productive democracy’."

Re-constituting industrial strategies based on co-creative labor

"In this context, talk of ‘industrial strategy’ now has a rather inanimate, chess board feel about it: one agent of change (the state), the pieces in their place (private companies); the state with an overview, moving them towards the end goal of a bigger GDP. But in reality, the chess board is shaking. Means and goals are in question. The traditional pieces are in meltdown – they look more like figures from Salvador Dali. And no one can be said, if they ever really could, to have an overview.


What would it mean to think about industrial policies not so much in terms of the goal of nudging the private sector to invest, but more in terms of how to release, develop and extend the creativity of labour in its broadest sense? How to expand and strengthen ‘productive democracy’? How to enhance the capacities of those whose ‘only’ means of production is their creative potential – and the social co-operation through which they can develop and realise this potential?

Productive democracy and the co-operative creativity of labour are taking many hybrid forms that are beginning to connect. The first step for labour-oriented industrial policies is to explore and understand the potential, the limits and the needs of the ways in which, in practice, a rethinking of labour is taking place beyond the wage contract. This is taking place, as we have already implied, in a number of seemingly separate spheres.

First, it’s come from the kinds of challenges that the trade union movement is facing in defending jobs in manufacturing as well as public services. Looking back, we can see the famously inspiring ‘alternative corporate plan for socially useful products’ – drawn up and campaigned for in the mid-1970s by shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace – as an early example of an alternative coming from workers facing an impasse in terms of traditional defensive trade union strategies.

In the Lucas case it was the result of realising the long term limits of occupations, on their own, as a way of resisting redundancies – and at the same time a determination not to see their skills and those of future generations being wasted when there are so many socially useful purposes to which they could be put. This consciousness, plus initial political support, led the shop stewards to act on the basis of the usefulness of their knowledge, and effectively use the organisational capacity of their Combine Committee (bringing together workers from every factory and level in the company) to share their knowledge and develop an industrial alternative. This was then a focus for collective bargaining and political campaigning for useful jobs.

It was an exemplar of what could have been productive democracy, had the Labour government of the time supported industrial policies geared to releasing the creativity of labour. It was in many ways a product of strong shop floor organisation and bargaining power which is now rare in what is left of manufacturing. But it gives us a glimpse of what is possible.

More recently it has been the challenge of defending public services which has led trade unionists to organise around the purpose and usefulness of their labour. There are many examples here: the collaboration between unions, politicians and public managers that has transformed local government in Norway, making it an almost privatisation free zone; the experiences of union-led transformation in Newcastle city council (as documented in my book Public Service Reform But Not as We Know It).

These experiences and many more bear witness to the role of organised labour as a driver of productivity of a public, not necessarily monetary, kind. It is in the public sector that trade unions are more likely to have the bargaining power, extensive organisation and the possibility of time off for trade union and social purposes to be able to have an impact.

The second sphere for the rethinking of labour has been through the renewal of the co-operative movement. And a third development is the powerful and ambiguous trend opened up by the new technology towards new kinds of collaboration is the peer to peer, distributed productions and the digital commons, as referred to earlier. This ‘sphere’ is not separate: it could expand both the transformative power of workers already rethinking labour in conventional employment, and the scale and reach of co-operatives.

How these trends connect to be a source of mutual strength and learning as self-conscious organisations of social creativity is a vital area to work on around practical issues and shared dilemmas.

One increasingly significant context of convergence is over ‘climate jobs’. We’ve noted already the growth of co‑operatives creating and distributing renewable energy. The ravages of climate change are leading some trade unionists to demand that workers, whether currently unemployed or employed in high-carbon industries, be allowed to deploy their know-how to manufacture wind turbines, solar water heaters and other parts of the infrastructure of a low-carbon economy." (

The Co-Creative Economy needs a Partner State

"Government policies towards industry for the past 30 years have been based on the notion of private property as the essential condition for economic creativity and wealth creation. Given a punch way beyond its intellectual weight by the ‘victory’ of the ‘free market’ in the Soviet bloc, this equation of private business with entrepreneurship and creativity has become one of those ideas of which Keynes remarked: ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.’

But Keynes’ emphasis on state spending to stimulate the ‘animal spirits’ of private investors is not sufficient either. It does not do justice to the diffuse sources of economic creativity which have emerged, some of them beyond both capitalist market and state, which could now thrive with the right kind of public support.

Mariana Mazzucato’s work – which proposes and describes a creative, not merely stimulus, role for the state – moves in the right direction. But the state always needs to have creative allies inside production. Historically, for Keynesians as well as neoliberals, this has unquestionably been private business.

The implication of my argument here is that policymakers now need to work on how to support the economic creativity of millions of people, whether in existing workplaces or working precariously outside the formal labour market. At present these capacities are being wasted.

They need specific forms of support, some of it from the state, and some of it from organisations that share or could be persuaded to share their goals. These could include the trade unions, the co-operative movement, some parts of the church, foundations, and the growing experiments in crowdfunding, democratically controlled loan funds and so on.

As far as existing workplaces are concerned, we need states to not only restore and extend rights that protect trade unions in their struggles over wages and conditions, but also to give workers rights to control the purpose of their labour: for example, a legal prohibition on closures or redundancies without alternatives being publicly explored, and in the case of large companies, public inquiries at which alternatives would be presented. Labour is a commons – it should not be wasted.

We need a new kind of ‘industrial strategy’ – one designed to support the creation of value that is not only monetary and requires autonomy from the pressures of the labour market. These should include a basic ‘citizen’s income’. Shorter working hours would be another measure that would serve a similar end.

Such measures don’t just allow people time to be productive outside of waged work – they also create a social framework which offers a way of reconsidering the importance of work versus other social uses of time.

We also need a regional policy that gives real support to cities as hubs of economic development, through direct public employment, and through support for co-ops involving regional banks. These could learn from the operations of the Mondragon bank and become a source of support and co‑ordination to networks of co-ops and other collaborative means of nurturing and realising the creativity of labour, rather than operating as banks of the traditional kind." (