The Need for Dissent

Radicalism is retreating, but it’s more necessary than ever before

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th September 2001

If Osama bin Laden did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. For the past four years, his name has been invoked whenever a US president has sought to increase the defence budget or wriggle out of arms control treaties. He has been used to justify even President Bush’s missile defence programme, though neither he nor his associates are known to possess anything approaching ballistic missile technology. Now he has become the personification of evil required to launch a crusade for good; the face behind the faceless terror.

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Workers’ cooperatives have had a different history. Although this type of company is marginal in Britain, there are famous examples of successes in other countries. For example, in France, the Workers’ Cooperative (SCOP, which stands for Société Coopératlve Ouvrière de Production) represents 1,500 companies, with 30,000 workers, realising together £1.5 billion of tumover. In Italy, 35,000 workers are members of a workers’ cooperative (Cooperative di Produzione a Lavoro). In Spain (Euskadi), in the fifties, a radical priest founded Mondragon, a group of coordinated worker’s cooperatives. Results of this group are very impressive: it represents 47,000 workers with £3.9 billion of tumover (1999). More impressive still is their £1.2 billion capital equity, which represents three times the capital equity of all French SCOPs together.

This shows that the balance sheet of workers’ cooperative is brighter than the bleak picture that we drew at the beginning of this text. However, the workers’ cooperative movement will have to face many challenges and pitfalls.

The first one lies in the under-capitalisation of cooperatives. Because the capital equity is remunerated at a lower interest rate than in capitalist companies, while the risk remains just as high as in private companies, it is hard to capitalise the company properly, and this under-capitalisation makes bankers reluctant to grant significant loans for development. The cooperators must them make up for this under-capitalisation with intense effort, which too often erodes cooperative principles, and leads the cooperative to accept private capital equity. Finally, when the proportion of private capital exceeds 50%, the cooperative becomes an ordinary company. The key to Mondragon’s success may well be that instead of having independent companies without capital links (like the French SCOPs), Mondragon has been built as a financial group with shared equity among the different companies. Therefore, Mondragon is now able to compete with significant capitalist companies after just 50 years of existence.

The under-capitalisation of workers’ cooperatives means that even though the movement has great successes in various countries, the sector remains marginal. This situation leads to a trap, which is the way workers’ cooperatives are positioned by the political establishment: they are there to cope with the social consequences of neoliberalism, to make up for a declining welfare state, and to access “markets” which are not profitable to the private sector. tinder these conditions they receive public funds, which too often represent crumbs compared with the tax benefits that some industrial groups receive for investing in certain areas. Positioning workers’ cooperatives in this way will therefore lead to a negative answer to our initial question: can workers’ cooperatives be a component of a better world? In order to answer this question in the affirmative, we will need to find ways to finance workers’ cooperatives independently from the state.

B.B.

Related Web sites: www.radicalroutes.org.uk www.scop-entreprises.tm.fr www.mondragon.mcc.es

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