For a long time the idea of social appropriation was thought of as amounting to no more than public property. The ease with which neoliberalism was able to privatise a number of public services shows to what extent this appropriation was merely a matter of form. If public property remains primordial, it is essential that it be completed by an appropriation by the workers and users. The appearance of alter-globalist struggles around the protection of common property opens new perspectives: the need to build an inalienable commons that forbids private appropriation.
The present struggles to defend jobs often involve taking over firms as cooperatives. This is an important stage in the appropriation of production by wage earners. Although the choice of a workers’ cooperative marks an evident break with the capitalist order, it remains subject to the risks and uncertainties of the market and was, for a long time, considered questionable both by the trade unions and the cooperative movement itself.
The widespread policies of commodification in the last thirty years have revived the need to protect common goods – nature, water, health and knowledge, among others – from private appropriation.
The notion of ‘the commons’ has taken on a new meaning with capitalist globalisation and the ecological crisis. The term indicates a common wealth for all that must not be commodified. Struggles have been waged to recognise this, with new forms of class struggle bringing new actors onto the scene. For example, the movement against land seizures in Africa and Latin America, or the battle for water in Italy, which resulted, in 2011, in a referendum with 95% in favour of a public water service, understood as a common good. The claim of the right to healthcare as a common good for the whole of humanity, presupposes enormous struggles against the pharmaceutical multinationals in the poorest countries for access to medicines.
These struggles for common goods at the local, national and international levels are aiming at removing from commodification whole areas of society considered necessary and useful to all and thus having a certain universal character. These battles even go further to demand that these goods be recognised the common goods of humanity.
After the failure of state socialist experiments and attempts at self-management, what credible alternatives are there in avoiding the wrong paths of 19th and 20th-century socialism and communism?
The concept of the commons and its institution could be one of the keystones of an alternative project through the affirmation of two principles:
The commons are not common property as such but processes for pooling experience and common development.
There is no commons by nature, but the commons is a social process in itself. Things are only in common that have been socially decided to be so.
The Italian jurist Ugo Mattei proposes overcoming the supposed antimony between public and private property: ‘A general change of sensibility that would lead to making “the common” into the central perspective, and would lay the foundations of a reversal that could take place at a technical-legal level. It is thus a matter of revealing, denouncing and overcoming the paradox of the liberal constitutional tradition – that of private property being more protected than collective property.’ This perspective is more fruitful and radical than that of public property, which can be transferred to private property on the grounds of an alleged economic efficiency or for clearing away state debts. The issue is to build an inalienable commons, a negation of property.
In 2011 in France, the solution to conflicts over maintaining employment often involved projects to take over the firm and run it as a workers’ cooperative. In February 2012, the taking over of the printing firm Helio-Corbeil as a ‘SCOP’1 was accepted by the commercial court. In June, in the North, some former employees of Comareg (a company that publishes the small advertising weekly Paru-Vendu, a subsidiary of the Hersant Group) took over the printing plant and set up a workers’ cooperative. In November, the employees of Fontanille, in the Haute Loire, took over their textile factory. In December it was the turn of the employees of SET, a high-technology firm in Savoy. In a dispute over the terms of closing the plant for nearly three years, the employees of the Fralib Company, which packages tea and herbal teas, and which Unilever wanted to shut down, drew up a counter plan to take over the firm as a cooperative.
A public firm, SeaFrance, 100% owned by the SNCF (French National Rails) and thus by the state, did not bounce back after the 2008/9 crisis. However, as from autumn 2011, the employees formed a SCOP as a candidate for purchasing the assets of the company, thus guaranteeing the continuity of the work contracts of the 800 people on staff. The antics of ex-President Sarkozy hastened the liquidation of the firm. However, the wages earners relaunched navigation of the ferries in August 2012, under the name of MyFerryLink, in partnership with EuroTunnel, which bought the boats. In the newspaper 20 minutes2, a former SeaFrance employee stated: ‘We will work seven days a week, it will be hard. But I don’t regret anything because it is better than a company that had no sense of direction, like SeaFrance.’ It is a return of the meaning of work, destroyed by management methods imposed by the financialisation of the economy, which has even spread into the non-commercial sector.
Something has changed in relation to 2009, a year in which the closing of production units was at its height: Rather than negotiate compensations or depend on a hypothetical take over, the wage earners now wish to control and manage their firms themselves. The employees’ are struggling to maintain employment is part of the battle for things in commons. Are not ‘jobs for all’ part of the common wellbeing of a region or of a territorial labour pool? The employees nearly always choose the cooperative form rather than a capitalist form for taking over their firm. In the cooperative form, the members of the society decide on the basis of ‘one person – one vote’ and not on the basis of the sums invested by each one. A low return on the social shares is the rule, which leads to the formation of a reserve that is indivisible – it belongs to no one in particular and acts as the common property of the members of the cooperative. This is a deliberate break with the rules of a company based on capital, whose objective is to increase the value of the funds invested, the social object serving to enhance the value of the capital. With the cooperative form, the capital takes second place and serves the social purpose of the firm.
However, the cooperative form remains a hybrid — even in the background, capital is always present. The cooperative remains private by nature. Compared with the activity of capitalist companies its power is less, which has its negative consequences in terms of investment. Even the indivisible reserves can be discussed: After all they are still the shareholders’ equity that the members are hoping to defend and that could lead them to develop subsidiaries that are not at all cooperative, as the Mondragon Group in Spain has done.
One approach to the financing of the firm in keeping with the principle of ‘being in common’ would be to refuse to have capital stock, prefering to finance the firm solely by loans. This solution is disparaged by liberal orthodoxy since the loan would only be payable if the borrowers had more to lose than the lender. This is valid for owners whose only relationship to the firm is the capital they have invested, but not for workers, for whom the firm is their daily source of wealth. This is why one often sees cooperative projects almost exclusively financed by debt, the workers having difficulty in raising large sums of money.
A firm exclusively financed by indebtedness to a public banking sector? We would then have a new kind of firm: a public company, but one whose management by the workers and other participating parties would be a guarantee of the sound use of public funding for a social or ecological objective.
During the Argentine crisis in 2002, in which many firms were taken over by their workers in the form of cooperatives, some called for ‘nationalisation under workers’ control’, the kind of public enterprise managed in a pyramidal manner by a management nominated by the state instead of by shareholders. The essential demand seems to be to move over to workers’ control both in the case of public and of cooperative companies.
Workers’ control? Labour cooperatives? The latter form was widely discredited in the past because, as the workers of these cooperatives had to find their market themselves, it seemed to reproduce within their firm the same exploitative relationship as in capitalist firms. Thus, for over a century, the cooperative movement has preferred consumer cooperatives. In the view of Charles Gide, former president of the Fédération Nationale des Cooperatives de Comsommation, and initiator of the International Cooperative Alliance: ‘Instead of production being in control of the market, it will become what it should never have ceased being, its servant, docilely obeying the consumers’ orders.’ Socialist and communist currents have long rejected workers’ cooperatives while investing in consumer cooperatives.
Mass consumption and massive investments in mass marketing of the 1950s and 60s led to a decline of consumer cooperatives. In this context, the wage restraints of the workers in these organisations were tightened to such an extent that it was hard to see the difference between them and the capitalist firms. This then led to the trade unions accepting workers cooperatives more readily.
The developments of the cooperative movement (SCIC in France, Social Cooperatives in Italy) show the direction that the new organisational forms of socialised structures will probably take: direct management by the workers oriented by the users or consumers and the public authorities. No doubt this is one of the factors that will allow commercial relations to be bypassed in economic relations, guaranteeing that the orientation of production units conforms to the general and public interest. Alongside these movements working in the capitalist sphere, the cooperative form is seeing a resurgence in the management of public services. For a long time everything involving network economies (rail transport, telecommunications, postal services) was managed by public companies as monopolies. Following the wave of neoliberal privatisation, the cooperative form enables, for example, the recreation of municipal companies for water (for example Initiative 136 in Thessalonica3), or a service for supplying renewable energy (in Belgium4). The cooperative movement is constantly evolving. By bringing users and workers together for defining production, by bypassing commercial relations, the different participating parties form, in common, a social appropriation clearly superior to a mere legal status, be it public or cooperative, which guarantees its inalienable character.
The avalanche of austerity plans in the countries of the Eurozone has led to recession. Under pressure from the employers, wages are becoming an adjustment variable for guaranteeing profits. Thus, in November 2012, Renault’s Spanish trade unions accepted an increase of hours amounting to 3 working days a year, wage increases at half the rate of inflation and a new and better pay scale for managers. In France, the agreement signed in January 2013 between the employers and some minority unions, which the government wants to make legally binding, has the same goal: to impose a reduction in wages on the alleged grounds of the difficulties firms are experiencing. Either the employers will succeed in guaranteeing profits by squeezing wages or the wage earners will stand fast on their wage guarantees, which will call into question companies based on capital and open the way to the taking over or socialising their firms.
Political action, particularly by the government, is a key factor in building the common. Should it act on the sidelines through radical fiscal redistribution, taking up to 100% of that part of an income in excess of a certain level, or else increase the wage earners share of the added value of their product, especially by increasing or creating social contributions to such an extent as to raise the question of the social appropriation of some firms? These are not in opposition to one another, but the emphasis placed on one or the other of these two options will depend on the policy being carried out.
In taking firms over as cooperatives, the question of financing is crucial. The socialised control of the banking sector is an immediate need and a strategic objective of social appropriation. People are, today, talking about a socialised rather than public banking sector, the legal character and ownership of banking establishments being no longer guaranteed. Public firms can, indeed, be managed from a capitalist perspective, the state owner just replacing the private shareholders. The activity of the users and workers in the management of financial establishments is the only guarantee that this sector will operate in the general interest.
The socialised sector includes the mutual banks that represent a significant part of banking activity. In France, more than half of the deposits are with banks of the cooperative sector5; their equity is composed of social shares and non-distributable reserves. The key question remains that of the intervention of wage earners and users in defining the content of their activity. Democracy should be reactivated in the banking sector since it has become merely formal. Officially, the general assemblies of local branches are sovereign, but in practice decisions are made by central management. It is crucial that these banking cooperatives be transformed to allow the direct impact of the employees on the management of the coop.
Controlling the end purpose of work, production and the respect for workers and their employment are the major concerns both of the workers in cooperatives and of those working in the classical enterprises. The employees of the latter are demanding new rights just as the cooperatives are experimenting with forms that could build tomorrow’s economic democracy based on values other than those of property.
The wage earners of capital-based companies are defending all wage earners, in particular their security, in all kinds of firms (see New Guarantees for Salaried Workers proposed by the CGT). For those working in the socialised sector, the question is that of the relations between a unit self-managed by its workers and the amount they are paid. Should their pay be completely independent of the economic performance of their unit, of its added value? It is a simple and ideal way but one whose economic effectiveness is questionable. Nevertheless, the future workers in this sector expect protective measures guaranteeing their salary and the possibility of moving from one firm to another without loss of status. These convergences between wage earners in the private sector and those in more or less self-managed experiments are essential for a radical change.
The recent struggles to defend employment underline the need for social appropriation of production in favour of common property. This sometimes may involve taking over a firm in the form of a workers’ cooperative, which must find its market in order to survive. This is why the working class and cooperative movements have so long preferred consumer cooperatives to worker cooperatives. Today, new forms of cooperatives are emerging in which workers and users are associated — this will be a determining factor in bypassing the market and building the common.
The defence of wage earners, both direct and socialised, is undoubtedly the principal area of the present-day confrontation between classes, one which will raise the issue of either maintaining capital-based companies or overcoming them by self-managed forms. If a break with present day capital-based companies is indispensable, the most important issue is around the social appropriation of these forms, which is determined by the ability of the workers and users together to define the nature of production and to create something ‘in common’.
Part of this movement is determined by the ability of the workers and users to fight for the defence of employment and of public services. State intervention will be a determining factor in these struggles, supported by the defence and extension of social contributions, the ensuring of workers’ incomes and the support of a socialised financial sector. Far from being an end in itself, the end purpose of this progressive state intervention would be its own overcoming through the creation of common property.