This is an insightful article on worker cooperatives being a key part of the transition to a vastly superior economic system. It is disappointing that it still suffers from typos (such as “asever”) days after I emailed the writer, however. Democracy in the economic system is a valuable idea, and serious professionalism would help it a lot.
Growing awareness that wages have been unable to keep up with inflated costs of living have left younger generations particularly disillusioned with capitalism’s ability to support their livelihoods, Wolff says, and with CEOs out-earning employees by sometimes as much as 800 to 1, it makes sense that public interest should be swinging toward a workplace model that encapsulates shared ownership, consensus-based decision making, and democratized wages.
Admittedly, Wolff acknowledges, a small boom in the number of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S.–consecutive years of double-digit growth in co-ops since 2010 have brought the total up to around 350, employing around 5,000 people–does not exactly scream revolution.
But that might be mean we’re looking in the wrong places. “I don’t want people to think in terms of Russia and China,” Wolff says. In their pursuit of an alternative, Wolff says, those countries neglected to do the work of transition at the micro scale, instead initiating wide-sweeping reforms at the state level and leaving their populations in the lurch.
Instead, Wolff says, it’s instructive to look to the transition to capitalism, and understand that it’s the smaller waves and shifts in the way things are done that signal true change.
Sometimes, serfs would get squeezed, Wolff says–maybe a serf who was permitted to work his own land three days a week was cut down to two, and had to work on the lord’s the rest of the time, struggling to feed his family. Those serfs would run away. They’d jet off into the forests around the manors, where they’d encounter other runaway serfs (this is the origin of Robin Hood). That group of runaways, who’d cut ties with the feudal system, would establish their own villages, called communes. Without the lord controlling how the former serfs used their land and their resources, those free workers set up a system of production and trade in the communes that would eventually evolve into modern capitalism.
“The image of the transition from feudalism to capitalism was the French Revolution, and that was part of it,” Wolff says, “but it wasn’t the whole story. The actual transition was much slower, and not cataclysmic, and found in these serfs that ran away and set up something new.”
In the U.S., businesses converting to cooperative workplace models are the functional equivalent of those runaway serfs. Around 10 cities across the U.S. have, in recent years, launched initiatives specifically to support the development of worker co-ops, which have been especially beneficial in creating job and wage stability in low-income neighborhoods. Because workers are beholden to themselves and each other, rather than a CEO and a board of directors, the model parts ways with the capitalist structure and advances something that more closely resembles a true democratic system.