1980s >> 1981 >> no-917-january-1981

TV Review: Worker co-operatives

“They have abolished the distinction between capital and labour” was the outlandish claim made recently by a BBC Horizon documentary, The Mondragon Experiment. The people in question were the workers in a conglomeration of about 80 “industrial co-operatives” in the Basque country. Commodities such as refrigerators and washing-machines are manufactured for sale at a profit as elsewhere, but the internal organisation is somewhat different.


Each worker joining a co-operative provides £2,000 for the company’s funds. This is increased by 6 per cent each year from the wealth the workers produce. They then receive a standard monthly salary. The higher paid workers may receive up to three times as much as lower paid workers. Then 10 per cent of the profits is spent on schools and so on, 20 per cent is paid pack, into company funds and the other 70 per cent is divided among the workers. There are two significant features of this “distribution of profits”. Firstly, these profits are allocated in the same proportions as the salaries The workers who were paid three times the wages of their colleagues each week are also allocated three times as much profit. Secondly, none of these “profit bonuses” can be withdrawn from the company capital (including the £2,000 original contribution) unless the worker leaves the co-operative.


Capital is wealth used to make more wealth; it is an accumulation of labour used to employ more labour, in order to realise a profit. In capitalism, wealth takes the form of commodities, articles produced for sale in the market at a profit. Capital is by definition divided from the labour it consumes. Workers receive wages or salaries which are generally just enough for them to replenish their energies and live in a way which is determined by place and time. They are then able to produce wealth greater in value than that represented by their wages or salaries. In a week a worker can make more than he himself requires. This surplus wealth created belongs to the employer, to capital.


This process can clearly be seen in Mondragon. The salaries paid were said by the reporter to be the “going rate for the job in the Basque country”, in other words, co-operative workers “pay themselves” just enough to live like other workers. The surplus they create is accumulated as capital. They can only get hold of their individual small share of that capital by leaving their job, and even then, the workers on higher salaries have much larger shares of it. Managers are elected by all workers, but so is a Social Council whose job it is to negotiate with the managers over wages, conditions and so on, just as trade unions do elsewhere.


There are some similarities between this form of capitalism and state-capitalist nations like the USSR. In both cases, the old set-up of private shareholders has been replaced by a complex bureaucratic structure, where specially inflated salaries for certain managers are used as a means of channelling the wealth to a privileged minority. In both cases the world market system of capitalism remains, so in periodic recessions production is restricted. But in Mondragon they are not made redundant. “Instead they send them back to school” said the reporter. In Russia they can put them in the army. The restrictions of the profit system remain. Both Russia and Mondragon are examples of capitalism where no specific shareholding capitalists are clearly in evidence.


These industrial co-operatives are said to be more successful as capitalist enterprises than other companies, firstly because almost all the resources are ploughed back without any dividends being paid, but also because the workers supervise themselves, without having to employ any foremen. So most of the workers are directly productive.


What if the co-operative workers democratically vote one week to pay themselves twice or three times as much, of the wealth they create? The frantic process of capital accumulation would be held up and the co-operative would lose ground in the vicious rat-race of capitalism. This is unavoidable in a worldwide system of buying and selling, or production for profit.


The way in which these workers are searching for co-operative work, though, and the degree to which they have succeeded in organising themselves without external investors or directors, is certainly a hopeful sign. It shows how the working class of the world can organise itself to produce wealth. But why retain this system of wages and profits, labour and capital? What is needed is a global political movement to replace the whole market system with planned production, co-operative production, without the fetters of wages, prices and profit.


Miss World contest
In this age of mass commodity consumerism, beauty is definitely NOT in the eye of the beholder. It is in the hands of the mass media. In commercial society, where commodities and money are mystified and personified, and where people are turned into objects, physical beauty is defined by conformity to a norm. Fashions, from lipstick to stilettoes, complete the conveyor-belt conversion in which workers are forced to go and sell themselves, as objects, to employers.


A few weeks ago, the ITV cameras were present in the Albert-Hall, where sixty-seven “beautiful girls”, representing sixty-seven nation-states (Warsaw Pact countries were excluded) were assembled to compete for the absurd title of “Miss World”. As with other sports, the spirt of fierce nationalist competition was in evidence, with the first stage of the contest consisting of a parade by the participants in their “national” costumes. Regional culture transformed into national rivalry. The trade figureheads parade past like plastic marionettes. “Miss Bolivia, Miss Turkey, Miss Zimbabwe, Miss Chile, Miss Jamaica . . .” While in each of these countries hundreds of people are dying in the political wranglings of the demagogues who own the resources, these painted puppets, moulded by a depraved society, stroll up and down smiling in their desperate efforts to conform to the norm. Red lips, blue eyelids, high heels and a frozen smile. This is a beauty contest, don’t forget. Place your bets. You can’t guess wrong, because whoever gets the prize, capitalist normality will have won.


The most touching moment was when all the participants sang together:


I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony,
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once, standing hand in hand
And hear the echo through the hills of peace throughout the land.


Sexual preoccupations are created and encouraged with promises of a “swimsuit” parade to come later. “Miss India” dances in a talent contest and Anthony Newley comments: “Makes you sorry we lost India doesn’t it”. The only thing he’s ever lost, as we were to find out subsequently, is his singing voice. Workers owned India no more than they own Ireland or ICI. Then the judges are wheeled on. Alan Minter, boxer, Denis Waterman, actor, Bruce Forsyth and the wife of the Swaziland High Commissioner. We don’t know where she came from, perhaps a friend of the organiser, Eric Morley. Presumably these people are trained experts on the oppressively narrow conception of “beauty” inculcated through constant exposure to media and advertising. We live more than ever in a social system which is insidiously restrictive. Individuality is stamped out. Social conformity is stamped in, at an early age, through what they call “education”. Beauty becomes a convention, a composite moulded from the mix of a million faces. And this is the very ideal to be attained in schools and in discotheques as much as in “Beauty” contests.


Out of the blue, Dame Vera Lynn appeared on the screen singing, “When you’re smiling . . . the whole world smiles with you”. Then, when called upon to actually speak, the beauty queens mouthed typically constricted ambitions such as “travelling” or “speaking a language”. In a co-operative system of society, individual and cultural development will be fostered, free from the prejudiced moral constraints imposed when social power is concentrated in the hands of a minority. Until real social democracy is established, with no class division or national frontiers, it will be true to say “When you’re different . . . the whole world sneers at you”.


Clifford Slapper