Concerning Cooperatives

Thinking about how to make an economic system that is more humane, and less riven by class struggles, many thinkers have advocated for workers' cooperatives (the Distributists being one example). Cooperatives differ from the traditional capitalist firm in that workers share ownership and management of the company, as opposed to being salaried employees with no participation in the profits besides what management feels like giving them. They differ from a socialist commune in that there is still private property, and individuals can benefit directly from the success of the firm, which tends to mitigate the typical Socialist tendency of "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work" and lead to more creativity and enterprise.
With these advantages, why hasn't the cooperative become more popular in the United States? In part, because cooperatives come with some drawbacks. First, if workers share ownership in the company, what happens when you hire new people? Does that mean that you've just diluted the ownership of the existing employees? If so, then there will be a tendency of the owner-employees to delay hiring more people, even if it means sacrificing business opportunities. Or do different classes of employees have different shares of ownership? If so, then the cooperative differs from a typical capitalist firm only by degrees.
How much of the ownership of the firm accrues to the investors, as opposed to the employees? After all, without the initial investment, there would likely be no business in the first place. And asking employees themselves to buy in, as some cooperatives do, places a high bar in front of poor job-seekers.
Additionally, there will always be a place in a large-sized firm for experts of some kind, who will be paid more for their expertise. Should such experts, be they management or whoever, also get a disproportionate share of the company?
All of these questions have answers, and the answers will vary depending on the particular needs of each cooperative. But even if you could come up with an ideal structure for your own situation, it is far from clear that existing law could support the ownership structure you want. To my knowledge, in the United States the most common means for employee ownership of their company is the ESOP, or Employer Stock Option Plan, and these are typically structured so that employees have partial ownership without true control. While American law has well-understood prototypes for traditional capitalist firms, like the C-Corporation or the S-Corp, there are few prototypes for worker-owned cooperatives.
If such prototypes existed, then new insights could be gained as people experimented with them and figured out what works and what does not in different contexts. And cooperatives could become more accepted in modern industrial economies—which is not to say that they would displace the typical capitalist firm entirely, or even mostly. Each firm structure solves different problems. The best structure depends on your own situation, and the imperatives of your industry. Still, more options are good.
One handicap of your typical utopian social reformers is that they tend to focus on parapolitics, action outside the system, rather than trying to work within the system. True, such parapolitics often has an effect, but you only get mass adoption of your ideas in the face of total collapse of the system you are opposing. In this case, those who seek to have the cooperative form catch on in society ought to be lobbying for its inclusion in the tax code, the same way that a C-Corp or S-Corp is. With an off-the-shelf model to work with, with well-understood procedures for sharing ownership and profits, more entrepreneurs may elect the cooperative model without any political or social goal at all—which is how you win.
Those who have read my previous pieces, advocating for a populist politics based on left-anarchism (to which I am presently giving the working title of "Arcadianism"), will not be surprised to read that such reforms of the tax code ought to be a major part of such a movement's platform. Cooperatives match very well with the social mindset of the Left, and they also cut directly against the Progressive agenda of corporate titans serving as intermediaries of the state, dictating terms to their subservient workers on behalf of grand social policies. Aside from which, cooperatives or other forms of alternative organization such as sociocracy address the problem where capitalist firms become "indigestible lumps of socialism" (a quote variously attributed to David Friedman or Kevin Carson), because of internal power hierarchies that mitigate the advantages of free trade.
Those on the libertarian right ought to be pushing for such reforms as well—but I doubt they will, which is why we need Arcadianism or something like it to play the same role in the Democratic Party that the Tea Party groups have done in the Republican Party.


David Friedman said...

" "indigestible lumps of socialism" (a quote variously attributed to David Friedman or Kevin Carson)"

I don't think it's mine.

I referred to the capitalist beach being made up of socialist grains of sand--but I was not implying that the hierarchical internal structure of firms was somehow a problem, merely an interesting feature of market equilibrium. Central control can work in some contexts--it just scales very badly.

Mastiff said...

Thanks for the input, sir. I agree in the sense that firms should be free to take whatever structure best meets their needs; I just think that we need more cards in the deck, so to speak

Anonymous said...

Another card in the deck here that needs to be at least considered, is a modified form of the Social Credit movement that was around prior to WWII. It is breifly, and poorly explained in Robert Heinlein's (first book written, but last book published) "For Us, The Living." There are several other explanations (Some ok, some not so good...) current on the web. The main issue I have with it is that it does away with private ownership of land, and is run by the government. Considering current technology, if it could be mostly run by computers (as opposed to yet another huge agency...)Might be worth including in the mix. It is certain that Mastiff is spot on that we need to start looking at things we can do within the system to bring about a desirable social situation -- before it all comes to a grinding halt.