I was surprised to read Sam Gindin’s characterization of my views on worker-ownership and cooperatives in his recent article “Chasing Utopia.” I agree with Wolff and Wright that worker-owned and self-directed firms make sense in a number of areas—and with Gindin’s judgment that “in general, factory takeovers and co-ops should be enthusiastically supported.” However, they are hardly at the center of my argument for a new socialism.
Gindin states that “what’s missing in so much recent analysis is a sober, comradely investigation of their strengths and weaknesses so that, over and above solidarity, we can learn from them rather than add to existing illusions—thereby gaining a better appreciation of what transforming society would really require.” I fully agree. Indeed, I debated Richard Wolff on the need to go beyond a narrow worker-ownership position during a major session of the Left Forum in 2014. I also discussed the same issues at length with another advocate of a largely worker self-managed market system, David Schweickart in a 2011 gathering. Again, though I think the Mondragón cooperatives are extremely important, they also leave many important questions unanswered (as outlined in a 2013 article when Fagor, one of the most prominent cooperatives in the network failed.)
A major problem is that operating in a market system worker cooperatives are subject to many of the problems of any enterprise operating in competition with others: They must externalize and reduce costs when under pressure, which can lead to environmental despoliation and, as we see with many coops today, the use of wage labor. Worker-ownership can also lead to unequal outcomes: the garbage worker-owners, for instance, are likely to have different incomes than the high tech worker-owners, and both groups are likely to have different levels of power in protecting those incomes.