The idea to start building up socialist elements within capitalism through cooperatives, often accompanied by some kind of (con-)federal unionism, is not new. This strategy may indeed sound tempting in theory. However, estimates suggest that today there exist already up to 3 million cooperatives with nearly one billion members worldwide, therefore 12% of humanity is claimed to be involved in cooperatives, also in many centers of capitalist modernity cooperatives are formally a part of economic reality. The International Labor Organization (ILO) even claims that 50% of the world´s agriculture outcome is marketed through cooperatives. If all this is true and cooperatives are supposed to be the solution for an economy based on democracy, why is the world not a better place yet? Is it just because the current mode of production does not provide the necessary conditions for cooperatives to show their actual potential? Anyway, it seems obvious that only a small part of those statistics accounts for “true” cooperatives that are not yet integrated into the capitalist mode of production. In addition, it seems like the ILO counts every field that is not in the hand of a big international firm a cooperative. Closely related, for our main issue more importantly however, is the question why has the significant existence of cooperatives across different regions and times often not led to any revolutionary movement or at least political organizing? Is there something fundamentally flawed with the idea of cooperatives as a key to overcome capitalism? The fact that many liberal western scientists and organizations like the UN are proposing to foster cooperatives, as well, is another reason for doubt. What is there interest? Will cooperatives even be used to stabilize the current power structures?
One thing that is certain is that we will not overcome capitalism by simply adding cooperatives. We do not even have to talk about statist, financial or international power structures that will rather sooner than later prevent society from taking the majority of the economy, including the core industries, under their control: The current owners and profiteers of the means of productions do not even have to actively interfere into the potential danger of cooperatives taking over, since those alternative economic institutions simply get absorbed by the system as soon as they reach a considerable size or influence. A very good example is the Basque cooperative Mondragón, which is taken as an example that cooperatives can work well even on a large scale, even by allegedly radical proponents of cooperatives like Richard Wolff. In practice however, the true cooperative basis of this conglomerate seems to have broken down under the pressure of capitalist assimilation. Outsourcing their production for cheap labor has become part of their practice, furthermore, nowadays only a third of the people working for Mondragón are actually members of the cooperative.
This tendency of absorption is the reason why the ideology of liberalism is so powerful in preventing any kind of alternative to gain ground, not only in economic but also in other political and social spheres. Liberalism is able to absorb the ideas or movements of any opposition and even creates their own opposition to later use them to delegitimise any true opposition. Following the same logic, there is also the danger that assimilated cooperatives even help to prolong the survival of the capitalist system. By providing help in the adaption to necessary reforms and time trends like the consideration of ecological aspects or giving employees a voice on the surface level without touching fundamental contradictions, assimilated political movements, including cooperatives, make capitalism more resilient against critique and attacks.
Therefore, many fellows argue that for allowing cooperatives to take the role of leading us towards a serious alternative to capitalist modernity, they need to be embedded in a profound revolutionary strategy. Before a revolutionary situation, cooperatives may only be able to play the role of preparing, educating and building up a minimum of alternative structure, so that we do not have to start from zero as soon as the opportunity to challenge dominant power structures realizes. Furthermore, I agree with Noam Chomsky that “the roots of a successor project of capitalism and its neoliberal organization will have to be constructed within the existing economy”. Abdullah Öcalan furthermore states that “It is a necessity of social nature that there is resistance and an alternative to capital accumulation and the resulting instruments of power whenever and wherever they exist”. This goes hand in hand with the understanding that the status quo will not simply dissolve itself without violent counter-revolutionary attacks as an alternative economy arises. Instead, even in a future where democratic modernity has been recovered, capitalist modernity will continue to coexist for the time being, at least in the mentality of society.
At the same time, cooperatives may stand for a theory of revolution, that focuses on preparing for the appearance of a “Kairós-moment” (window of opportunity) through organizing and establishing concrete alternatives. The power vacuum in North-East Syria prior to the beginning of the Rojava Revolution can be described as such a “moment of opportunity” which led to success since the window of opportunity was recognized and society had been organized many years in advance. This concept combines and distinguishes itself from other approaches to revolution: The classical/orthodox Marxist view of waiting for the revolution to appear through historical determinism and history as progress (which degrades us to passive observers until the conditions are ripe) on the one hand as well as the Leninist strategy of forcing revolution through organized vanguardism or a rather insurrectionist/spontainist approach of claiming “revolution is whenever and wherever we want it to be” on the other hand (organization is key, but trying to force the revolution without acknowledging the external time frame and conditions is hopeless). In a cooperative revolutionary strategy the cooperative is used as a tool of organizing and preparing which has to start right away, while always having a broad but clear analysis of the political situation in order to recognize a Kairós moment as soon as it appears in which the cooperatives (along with other institutions & structures) will be set free from their leashes and provide the foundations for the emerging alternative. Hence, this strategy admits that a revolutionary rupture is only possible or sustainable if the conditions are suitable, while stressing however, that those opportunities can only be taken if the necessary preparations had been taken in the years or decades before.
The main contradiction of trying to implement a cooperative economy within the capitalist hegemony is the unsolved riddle of how to create cooperatives that reach beyond the niche while avoiding the constant pressure of the logic of capitalist markets. Following the argumentation of Rosa Luxemburg, I agree that within capitalist modernity, cooperatives are bound to fall into traps. In her pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution Luxemburg heavily criticizes Eduard Bernstein for revisionist argumentation. While I defend Bernstein´s analysis that capitalism is adoptable and would not inevitably collapse rather soon as many of his critics like Luxemburg predicted (with my slight advantage of access to 120 years more of capitalist history), I agree with her general criticism and use her argumentation why his proposed cooperatives and trade unions “are totally incapable of transforming the capitalist mode of production”: Cooperatives may either fall in the assimilation trap, which means giving in to market competition. In this case, sooner or later, the control of production by the interest of capital becomes unpreventable for the survival of the cooperative. Or alternatively, if the members are resisting the first trap and manage to keep some of their principles alive, they fall into the second trap of isolation and self-exploitation. In this case they are relatively detached from the capitalist market but since no alternative is existing, this leads to the (relative) insignificance of a neighborhood utopia, burn-out of members or dissolvement. Luxemburg explains: “[cooperatives] are obliged to play the role of capitalist entrepreneur toward themselves – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of cooperatives in production, which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”
As a next step, Luxemburg argues that the only way to avoid the capitalist market pressure is to withdraw from this mechanism. She proposes that (production-) cooperatives need to organize the demand side of the economic circle in an independent way. She suggests that this would be the role of consumer cooperatives. So consumer cooperatives are the missing puzzle piece for the solution? Not so fast, Luxemburg continues that this will still be a very limited scope due to the limitation of the product range demanded by consumer cooperatives which is usually bound to food and small scale production. In order to take control of the economy however, system-relevant industries would be needed. At the same time however, she describes how a symbiosis between production and consumption cooperatives could still achieve an economic production circle mostly independent of the main capitalist market structures. If we dont have illusions that this on its own will pose an existential threat to global production patterns, it may provide an environment for organizing and gaining valuable experiences.
So we have seen that cooperatives will hardly be able to develop according to our wishes in a capitalist system. At the same time, if cooperatives would function perfectly within the capitalist system, would this not indicate that cooperatives are not the root of the alternative economy that we are striving for? Marx describes the self-exploitation trap when he states that “the workers become their own capitalists”, which is arguably a more favorable situation compared to being exploited by an exterior “real” capitalist, but the goal should be an economy which is not based on the extraction of profit at all. The fact that cooperatives can hardly survive in capitalist modernity without giving in to compromises, self-exploitation or some other form of assimilation, shows that the capitalist hegemony is not the natural habitat of cooperatives.
Another common critique towards cooperatives as the base of a future economic system is that they do not fundamentally break with the wage system. Just because we pay our wages to ourselves, it is still a wage. This issue goes hand in hand with the fundamental question whether we can organize a complex economy without the use of any money. Even though these are very interesting and important questions, neither wage labor nor money is a necessary attribute of a cooperative. The core principles of a cooperative can also (probably even better) be applied in a system without any wage or even without any money. But the details of this require another discussion.
In addition, as described above, in Rojava some cooperatives have at least succeeded to overcome the wage system in the sense that each member works according to their needs and receives a share of the outcome according to the necessities of their family. Furthermore, the economic committee of North-East Syria is constantly considering and making experiences in different ways how a new economy can be realized. There is a village in Rojava for instance, where money has been abolished as a daily tool. The only time those villagers have to use money is if they leave their village for a different region. However, this is only a small scale experiment.
If we honestly believe that a fundamentally different way of organizing life is possible, we have to believe in the ability of society to rediscover a communal and cooperative way of fulfilling its needs. The strongest argument in favor of using cooperatives as a revolutionary tool is the fact that cooperatives are a fundamental part of the alternative socioeconomic system that we want to create one day. Even if one concludes that trying to implement this “breath of socialism” in the current system today is not promising, it may still be useful to gain experience in all different aspects of the building of a cooperative economy, for instance, transforming a capitalist company into a cooperative.
Regarding this issue, we can learn from our experience here in Rojava. In the first years of the revolution, the construction of cooperatives were done according to different principles than today. To keep it short, one can say that the early cooperatives shared some of the shortcomings of most western ‘capitalist’- cooperatives nowadays. For instance, it was possible for people outside of the cooperative to invest in them and therefore make profit of other peoples´ labor. The self-administration recognized this shortcoming and soon new principles were introduced which bound the cooperatives to the local commune which ensures that the cooperative is run by the people for themselves. This is one example of the very important experiences that the people in Rojava involved in the construction of an alternative economy make every day. And we have to acknowledge that even with the most sophisticated and thought-through theory how a cooperative economy should be build up, many mistakes and new difficulties will only appear in practice. This is a strong argument for starting to make at least some of those experiences everywhere around the world. Why should we wait for external conditions to change? Hence, one could conclude that if the people of Rojava had started building up cooperatives long before the Autonomous-Administration was established, they would have learned from these mistakes and the cooperatives would be at a more mature state today, more able to be the backbone of the entire economy. However, we need to keep in mind that the Kurdish minority in North-East Syria was not even allowed to own their own fields, houses, shops and were even banned from planting trees. These oppressive conditions obviously did not allow them to gain experience in the establishment of cooperatives. Even though the majority of the people around the world are not suffering under such extreme direct oppression, we should remember that a serious attempt to build up a cooperative structure will face the confrontation by states and various individuals and institutions that benefit from the current system. Hence, if we ask “Should we build up cooperatives around the world?”, we also need to answer the question “(Under which conditions) can we do it?”. And the crucial question that follows is “How should we do it?”
When talking about building up a cooperative economy, this often implies actually establishing new cooperatives from scratch, which promises to allow us to implement every step purely according to our principles. However, another possibility is to make use of the existing know-how and facilities by taking over existing firms to turn them into a cooperative.
What makes this strategy worthwhile considering is the advantage of being able to seriously materialize a change of property control since we would not be limited to small scale production anymore. In addition, such a takeover immediately poses the questions of class, power and violence since it will quickly show how the state with the police as its executive power is protecting the interest of private profit and property. A well-known example of factory takeovers are the worker-reclaimed factories in Argentina in the 2000’s. Following the economic depression of 2001, many businesses went bankrupt, laid of workers and closed their factories. One important factor was that the occupations and takeovers of factories were embedded in a general political movement opposing the neoliberal politics of the Argentinian state. In the end, however, unless such a movement can gain huge momentum and overtake a significant part of the main industries (this would likely be a scenario in the dimensions comparable to a general strike), it will still be exposed to the same contradictions of a capitalist environment.
It is obvious that the role of cooperatives has to differ according to the current socioeconomic and political circumstances in different regions around the world. Therefore, in the end, I will try to give an outline of what different strategies in three different categories of settings may look like.
The first stage I call center of capitalist modernity. Even though one has to look carefully to find any culture that has not been influenced by the age of capitalism until today (literally there is even no culture/place on earth not affected considering climate effects), I am talking about modern capitalist nation states where the hegemonic system is not even perceived as a historical system since it has reached far beyond material conditions and is omnipresent in the peoples’ mindset. In this hostile environment, the traps that cooperatives encounter (described above), are most relevant and difficult to overcome. It is here that we have to ask ourselves if time and effort of revolutionaries may be better invested in different projects or different regions of the struggle. If we still decide to build up cooperatives in this first scenario, the focus of cooperatives may be related to basic needs like health-/care, housing or culture rather than in the production of goods. Hence, the only viable compromise may be that the role of cooperatives shifts to a different focus: Cooperatives can become places of education and organizing: A way of creating community and bringing a neighborhood together. This may remind you of one of the central aims of cooperatives here in Rojava, discussed above, as well. What distinguishes this from other existing social/community centers? In some sense not a lot, but even if it is just a collective cafe, shop or bike repair, if implemented consistently, it is still more than just a place for people to hang out and take a break from the everyday hustle within capitalism, it is a small material realization of communal economy and democratic modernity. May it only be for the purpose of providing a concrete alternative to arouse from sleep society’s drive for a meaningful life and provoke appetite for more.
The second category or stage may apply to countries and regions where the mentality and economic unlogic of capitalism have not managed to reach every corner or where the influence of the state is not as comprehensive as in the center of capitalist modernity. In such an environment cooperatives may actually have the breathing room to reach some extent of autonomous economy, even if, for example, only limited to a certain region within a nation state that has a politicized society. Even if this will rather realize in remote areas far from capital cities, once a network of cooperatives has been established within a loophole of external and internal pressure, society will be willing to defend this new freedom from attacks by the state or international market forces. Therefore, for this second scenario, the goal should be to sincerely build-up a parallel economy which eventually challenges the hegemonic power relations.
The third case I describe as absence of nation state power or a situation where the power is in the hands of the people in form of a revolutionary movement committed to people’s liberation. In this scenario, the aim should be clear: Materialize cooperatives as the base of a communal economy. North-East Syria in the last 8 years, obviously, falls into the third category. Important to consider is that it is hardly possible to just jump from 0 to step 3. This means that if the society has not had the chance to gain any practical nor theoretical experience in organization of life and economy in a cooperative way, it is not possible to enforce this from above. This is a significant difference in which Democratic Confederalism distinguishes itself from centralist real-socialist attempts of the past: The members of the economic committee stress that is is vital to take the detour via, what I describe as steps 1 and 2, in order for society to build up a profound alternative economy instead of imposing the way of producing, and thereby living, from above. This may be a positive outlook that cooperatives within scenario 1 or 2 may indeed play an important role of paving the way until scenario 3 realizes. If the phases of politicization, organization and experiences were missed out, or politically not possible (like here in North-East Syria due to the oppression by the regime as describes above), these steps will therefore be taken even though we are actually in the third scenario.
In the end, I still can not imagine how a fundamental alternative economic system cannot be based on some kind of collectively owned units with democratic member control, in other words: Cooperatives. This does not imply that building up a cooperative is always and everywhere a strategically clever and revolutionary thing to do. I tried to share my thoughts on why this approach can be totally in vain, misleading or even counterproductive. At the same time, I also presented some ideas why, how and under which circumstances we should maybe still consider to start building a cooperative economy today, no matter where we are. Rojava shows that the cooperative economy reaches far beyond the fulfillment of society’s economic needs: It shows that the establishment of cooperatives can and should go hand in hand with women’s liberation, radical ecology, intercultural exchange, grassroots democracy and the reestablishing of communal ways of living. In short: Cooperatives are Revolution.
Read part one here