Worker co-ops without planning

On the subject of workers’ co-ops, I am intrigued by the possibilities co-ops offer, but also puzzled by how the problem of social production is to be approached in this model. What is envisioned when different co-ops offer the same goods or services – will there not be a competitive, market-driven situation in which they attempt to out-perform another in order to survive and prosper – leading to the classic problems of overproduction, employment redundancy etc? Socialists historically looked to a centrally planned economy to organise production rationally and to avoid the just-mentioned destructive tendencies of the market economy. What happens in an economy based on independent worker co-operatives: can production be rationalised to deliver the maximum benefit across society and to avoid the pitfalls of a market-driven system?

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This question arises often, so thanks for the opportunity to reply. Independent capitalist enterprises (that emerged out of previous, different economic systems such as feudalism) found ways to organize production by using markets and competition and government regulation. Independent worker coops will find their ways as well. It is possible that worker coops will adopt and adapt markets, competition and government regulation as well, but will do so in different ways because the goal of worker coops is to have the markets, competition, and regulation serve to reproduce and strengthen worker coop workplace organization, whereas in capitalism the goal is to have the very different capitalist organization of production be reproduced. It is more likely that worker coops will take from the older, anti-capitalist socialist tradition the use of planning (central or decentralized) as the way to achieve coordination among worker coops. That is, a democratic planning mechanism will be developed that prioritizes broad democratic allocational decisions over individual market transactions.

Perhaps most importantly, the values driving worker coops might well be expected to finally settle the following issue (that could never be faced in the history of capitalism): separating the employment issue from the particularity of the product. What this means is this: if demand falls for any food or service or if technology makes one producer more productive than another or if supply of anything exceeds demand, laborers are reallocated and/or the labor-leisure division is changed, but no one is ever involuntarily unemployed since that is manifestly irrational in a way that a worker-coop based economy can see and accept unlike a capitalist-based society. Once workers know their jobs and incomes are secure, shifting from one to another activity according to some system of eligibility/seniority/preferences will stop being treated as if it meant unemployment (as in capitalism) and thus become routinized without fear/resistance attached.

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  • Richard Wolff
    responded with submitted 2016-11-30 15:35:08 -0500
  • Joel Stern
    published this page in Ask Prof. Wolff 2016-11-29 07:24:08 -0500