Associated Labor

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Can Coops be considered as a form of associated labor


"Marx viewed the coop factories within a historical dialectic of social forms of labour: the cooperatives demonstrated to him “that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.”[10]

At a broader, strategic level, Marx was circumspect about the value of the coops. “Excellent in principle” and “useful in practice,” he insisted “cooperative labour,” confined to a “narrow circle of the casual efforts of private workman, will never be able to arrest the growth in geometrical progression of monopoly, to free the masses, nor even to perceptibly lighten the burden of their miseries.”[11] What Marx goes on to say--“To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working class”--perhaps helps to explain why relatively few in the Marxian tradition would examine coops in the coming decades.[12] “Restricted to dwarfish forms,” Marx concluded, “the cooperative system will never transform capitalist societies.”[13]

There is some dispute about the balance of positive and negative elements in this complex assessment of coops.[14] We will revisit Marx’s comments on the shortcomings of the worker coop later. For the moment, we return to Marx’s allusion to “associated labour” as a collective subjectivity animating the cooperative factories.[15] Picking up on a reference by Marx to a “mode of production of associated labour,” Teinosuke Otani has spoken of “associated labour” as work that “sheds the alienated guise it has had as wage labour.”[16]Associated labour is, suggests Otani, voluntary (i.e. people are no longer forced to work for a wage in order to exist); communal; consciously planned; on a sufficient scale to mobilize “social productive power”; scientific (i.e. using modern technologies); satisfying workers’ needs (i.e. as against the subordination of those needs to the requirements of capital); and realizing participants’ “species being,” or, broadly, their interconnection with other humans.

The at least partial fit between associated labour and the worker cooperative is noted by Michael Lebowitz. The power of capital, writes Lebowitz, derives from “captur[ing] the fruits of cooperation.”[17] In the capital-labour relation, he goes on to say, “each wage labourer is an individual, isolated owner of labour-power.” In contrast, in a worker coop where the business is collectively owned and controlled, the individual no longer meets capital as an isolated seller of their labour capacity, but, rather, confronts capital as associated power. Moreover, rather than capital acting as “mediator for wage-labour,” the worker cooperative replaces “capital as mediator … in the purchase of labour-power.”[18] As the Canadian Worker Coop Federation puts it: “In a worker coop capital is the servant of the cooperative.”[19] This apparent inversion of the power relation between labour and capital has implications that extend to workers’ control over the labour process, in that associated cooperative labour also replaces capital, says Lebowitz, “in the direction and supervision of production.”[20] Not immediately answerable to the managers of capital, potentially “the whole nature of work can change”:

Workers can cooperate with each other to do their jobs well; they can apply their knowledge about better ways to produce to improve production both immediately and in the future; and, they can end the division in the workplace between those who think and those who do.[21]

Although Lebowitz is not dismissive of Marx’s own worry that cooperators can just the same “become their own capitalist,” he also cites Marx’s more optimistic view of worker coops as “practical demonstration that capital was not necessary as mediator in social production,” and, as such, act as an example of a “‘republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.’” (