Firing your boss is just the beginning.
In May of 2011, the seventy workers of Vio.Me stopped getting paid. Like many Greek capitalists, the long-absentee owner of this industrial chemical manufacturer faced financial ruin, and would soon file for bankruptcy. As such, the plant was abandoned. There would be no more jobs there, and the machines would soon be taken out and sold. For the people working in this plant, this was an especially frightening prospect. With unemployment skyrocketing and cuts to social services, pensions, and the like looming, these mostly middle-aged workers would be ejected into a bleak economy, and they knew it. Makis Anagnostou, a worker there, describes the conundrum they faced: “there was no chance of finding work outside . . . [but] abandoning our current situation and entering another was not possible.”
Rather than accept an impossible situation, the unionized workers chose to fight. After months of deliberation, the union came together, and 97 percent of the workers voted to occupy the factory. Like many sit-down strikes before it, the workers stayed inside the factory around the clock, preventing the machinery from being sold off. Their goal was to force the owner to deliver the 1.5 million euros owed in salaries and compensation.
Contracts and negotiations, however, weren’t forthcoming. The owner still either could not or would not deliver the workers’ stolen pay. The struggle had to take another form. In July of 2012, the striking workers declared a new intention: to restart production in the occupied factory, now under their control. There would be no more bosses; instead, the workers would collectively own and manage their workplace. Outreach to activists, trade unions, and the surrounding community began right away. Reopening would require redefining everything about their work, something they could only do with a broad base of support. After months of organizing and a massive benefit concert, they were finally ready to start business. On February 12, 2013, they formally reopened the factory and began production.
Today the factory remains open and in the workers’ hands. They don’t produce construction chemicals anymore, however—their community was unwilling to deal with the pollution and smell. Now they make environmentally friendly soaps and other cleaning products. Vio.Me distributes throughout Greece and the rest of Europe, relying on the nodes of a “solidarity economy”—like-minded businesses, organizations, and people dedicated to supporting these attempts at a cooperative economy. Wages are low—usually only a little better than unemployment benefits—but the business is growing, and the freedom and newfound power make it worth it for the workers who stuck around. As worker Christos Manoukas says, “we are opening up a path, an opening, a crack, towards a different economic and social way of being.”
The struggles of the Vio.Me workers open up a broader question that anti-capitalists have long attempted to answer: how can we—the non-owning class, the landless, the oppressed, the poor—take power over the economy? How can we become the force that governs our lives and our work? And how can this involve not just one or two companies, but a whole world system?
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had something like this world system in mind when they called on workers to “seize the means of production” 160 years ago. Generations of radicals since have given their own answers—in their own voices, for their own times and places, with and without Marx. During the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata’s guerrilla army, arrayed under the banner of “Land and Liberty,” proposed one such answer—seizing land, timber, and water, then distributing it to the pueblos and citizens of Mexico. In the 1960s, the Black Panther Party declared in their Ten-Point Program that “the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community” in order to achieve self-organized full employment for Black people, brought to fruition by armed self-defense and mass organization. Recent movements around the world are animated by the same spirit, from Cooperation Jackson in the US South to the communes of Venezuela and Rojava.
Outside of existing movements, this vision inspires slogans like “strike, occupy, take over,” gets tossed around loosely on Twitter and in memes, and here and there receives serious consideration in books and the big leftist magazines. Images of revolution fill posters and minds, cobbled together from pieces of Oakland in 1969, Russia in 1917, Catalonia in 1936: the streets full, our collective needs met together. For a lot of us that’s where it ends. A vision, a vibe, a meme, a big mood, a consolation prize to share with friends. If the moment of taking over can feel so powerful in imagination, if it can appear as such an urgent need, then it calls for serious consideration about how it can be done. In the United States, where “private property” has rarely been seriously challenged, what would it mean to take an industry away from private ownership? How can we “seize” what Marx called “the means of production,” the land, tools, machines, and buildings that allow us to live and grow and change?
Maybe you imagined it something like this: for years, working and poor people organize, building unions, political parties, and protest groups. Through struggle and careful planning a large network emerges—a coalition of landless, propertyless people, prepared to lay hold of the reins of power. Crisis comes, and in a shocking election this coalition takes over. Or maybe more is needed, and strikes, riots, and armed revolution precede the seizing of power. Either way, all the old functions of government—the military, tax collection, diplomacy—become property of the people. This new government, a revolutionary state, takes control of the farms, factories, and natural resources and gives them back to the people who work them. There are more struggles for sure, but the beginnings of socialism are there and ready to grow.
This idea of “seizing the state” has a long tradition on the left. It comes in part from Marx’s own writings, extending through Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution, onward to Mao Zedong in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and countless other revolutionaries, with plenty of adaptation along the way. Lenin is especially important in this lineage—his ideas on the state have been a cornerstone. Understanding them helps us understand the politics of using the state to redistribute wealth, and in particular the ways state politics fall short.
In the oft-cited State and Revolution, written in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Lenin explained how it would work: “it is quite possible, after the overthrow of the capitalists and the bureaucrats, to proceed immediately, overnight, to replace them in the control over production and distribution…by the armed workers, by the whole of the armed population.” An organized minority, the triumphant “vanguard of the oppressed,” would seize the state, which would then transfer ownership of every industry to all working people. This state would suppress the former capitalists and their allies, while at the same time expanding democracy in the workplace until all workers could participate equally in the administration of their work. Thus would the revolutionary state transform “the whole of society [into] a single office and a single factory, with equality of labor and pay.”
Unlike many of those who followed in his footsteps, Lenin assumed that this inadequate and ugly first step would throw the door “wide open for the transition from the first phase of communist society to its higher phase”—a fully classless, and significantly less violent, developed world. In the formal equality of a socialist state, real equality would begin to seep in. The “simple, fundamental rules of the community [would] very soon become a habit,” and the state, being mostly an instrument of violent compulsion, would wither away. The narrow path such a state must walk was clear: “until the ‘higher’ phase of communism arrives, the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labor and the measure of consumption; but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers’ control over the capitalists, and must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats, but by a state of armed workers.”
“Like socialist states before it, the DSA in power would find itself forced to increase productivity and raise profits, by whatever means, or enter into crisis.”
Most have settled for less. Lenin himself, once the Russian Revolution was over, oversaw the shift into the New Economic Plan, which allowed some rural industries to return to private ownership. Assuming power after Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin reversed this policy—retaking everything for the state. But this state wasn’t the democratic one Lenin had described—power didn’t lay with the workers, armed and organized into a new kind of state. Rather the government had taken on “the role of the capitalist employer, exploiting the workers in the interest of the state” as Anton Pannekoek put it. Foreign trade for profit was continued under the direction of the party, independent trade unions were violently forbidden, and the managing bureaucracy instituted a harsh, military discipline in the factories and collective farms. Stalinism boosted production at all costs, through direct violence and an ideology of sacrifice through toil, establishing along the way a sharp difference between the lives of the managing bureaucrats and the workers tasked with growing wheat and building tractors.
Stalin’s government had nationalized all industry, transferring it to state control, but not socialized it, by transferring power to the organized workers. Long-winded debates have followed about whether that economic system should be called “state socialism,” a “deformed workers’ state,” “bureaucratic collectivism,” or “state capitalism.” Most commentators outside of Trotskyist and Stalinist circles, notably CLR James, have stuck with the phrase “state capitalism,” seeing in Soviet economics a special kind of capitalism where the state owns and manages capital exclusively, generating surplus wealth that it then reinvests according to its own prerogatives.
Almost all of the socialist governments remaining practice some kind of state capitalism, with varying degrees of seriousness about an eventual transfer to worker’s control. In fact nearly all contemporary states have large holdings of capital, regardless of their stated ideology. This includes “social democratic” states like Norway, with their trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, but also the US, with its handful of federally owned corporations and numerous state-owned wealth funds, not to mention public-private partnerships like Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac, which loan to students and homeowners. State ownership isn’t necessarily opposed to capitalism, though state-owned companies can run at a loss, for some time, given the state’s power to tax. States are still subject to pressures of the international market, and plenty still seek to turn a profit on their holdings. Still, ownership by a representative government does mean there is a little more leeway to influence decisions—it’s at least better than “voting with your dollars.”
For many modern socialists, expanding state capitalism under socialist leadership is a key objective, seen as a means to transition out of capitalism. In articles like Thomas Hanna’s “The Public Ownership Solution” the idea is fairly simple—expand public (state) ownership and start democratizing it. Democracy here includes things like citizen oversight councils, worker representatives, and democratically elected boards of directors. In his telling, “public ownership, while not enough, is a prerequisite for building a more democratic and socially just society.” With our goals adjusted accordingly, “there’s more of a basis for constructing socialism in the US than one might suspect.”
After the failure of the world revolution and the isolation of Russia, Lenin himself, in the middle of his New Economic Plan, acceded to state capitalism as “a form of capitalism that is deliberately permitted and restricted by the working class”—a necessary step forward, given the circumstances. This idea, of “permission and restriction by the working class,” has stuck around. In much socialist and social-democratic thinking, fine-sounding phrases about “worker’s control” obscure what is still state capitalism. In such a telling, socialism is worker’s control of the means of production, is worker’s control over the state but it can easily become superficial political control over a system still built around exploitation and profit. Profits nominally go to the workers or “the public” in such a situation but are managed by the state.
This sort of vision of socialism is especially common in the Democratic Socialists of America(DSA). In “Resistance Rising,” their national strategic document from 2016, the writers imagine that after substantial organizing and recruiting of new members, they can achieve a moment where “we can talk seriously about the transition to democratic socialism.” They propose a series of “non-reformist reforms” in order to bring that transition about, including the “nationalization of strategic industries (banking, automobile manufacture, energy) and the creation of worker-controlled investment funds (created by taxing corporate profits) that will buy out capitalist stakes in firms and set up worker-owned and -operated firms on a large-scale.” These transitional objectives bring them closer to the socialism they envision, in which “very large, strategically important sectors of the economy—such as housing, utilities, and heavy industry—would be subject to democratic planning outside the market, while a market sector consisting of worker-owned and operated firms would be developed for the production and distribution of many consumer goods.”
The boundary here between “socialism” and “state capitalism” is murky. For the authors of this summary, “democratic control” is the part that makes it socialism—whether to use markets or central planning is a technical question that these democratic systems can parse out. Still, the system continues to function through monetary exchange and workers remain, at least partly, dependent on work for survival. With the wage, money, and the market intact, the possibility that what results is just another form of capitalism is high. International markets, if not national ones, will continue to set prices that force competition, and with it increases in exploitation. Likewise the progressive taxes proposed have an expiration date—without continued profits, there can be no tax base to fund the social services and programs this transition requires. Like socialist states before it, the DSA in power would find itself forced to increase productivity and raise profits, by whatever means, or enter into crisis. As the communist journal Endnotes observes, in such a state of affairs “the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself.”
Even before these obstacles appear, this path is a hard one in the US. Our legal system frowns upon nationalization of companies without compensation for the old owners—the few examples one can find happened in wartime, and were undertaken in order to crush labor. One of these, Truman’s seizure of the steel industry during the Korean War, was later ruled unconstitutional. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution forbids expropriation of property outside of criminal or civil complaint heard in court. This means the path to legally socialize an industry would require a major constitutional amendment or else direct purchase by the government. Furthermore, rendering the government an instrument of democratic control would be difficult to say the least, given its many undemocratic features. Electoral turnout is around 50 percent, the two parties are run exclusively by the wealthy, and millions of Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian residents are disenfranchised legally and otherwise.
Medicare for All
Possibly the only project that comes close to a nationalizing or socializing program here and now is the Medicare for All campaign. As a part of socialist strategy, it can illustrate one way forward—a large expansion of the government into the private sector, weakening the grip that corporations have on consumers. This is distinct from outright socialization, or even nationalization, of healthcare. Medicare is not an entirely public medical system like Britain’s or Cuba’s—it’s an insurance program, able to bargain with but not directly control pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and doctors. Medicare for All would at least take some medical insurance off the open market, but it wouldn’t increase the amount of democratic oversight for consumers, let alone establish workplace democracy for healthcare workers. In fact, Medicare’s oversight mechanisms are nonexistent now, leading one disability rights organization—the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition—to advocate instead for Medicaid for all.
In its immediate content, it’s hard to make a case that this is a socialist project on its own, even if it would be a huge gain for tens of millions of uninsured and underinsured people. Still, expanding this bargaining power could pave the way for further expansion of government control over the medical field and, if carefully combined with a more broadly democratic political structure, amount to real public control over medicine. Again from the DSA: “Every corporate executive, financial baron, tech guru, and industry titan knows that if we were to socialize health insurance, their industry could be next.”
But as writer Sophia Burns points out, the US government is not a worker’s democracy. It belongs, without reservation, to the capitalist class, and it has been managed to serve their interests for over two hundred years. Both public and private healthcare shares the same, dehumanizing goal: “it keeps workers healthy enough to go to work, and and it warehouses disabled people as cheaply and expeditiously as possible.” Ending the existing practices of warehousing, abuse, and minimal or negligent care that govern treatment of poor and disabled people would require something more radical than a change of ownership—it would require a change in the whole machine.
Burns proposes an alternative strategy organized around mutual aid programs—clinics and social services built by revolutionaries outside of the existing state, operating “on their own terms, under their own control.” She cites the need for “leadership across differences” that can achieve reforms tougher than those that are currently a part of the Medicare for All platform—ending abusive and eugenicist practices, allowing long-term and mental health patients the right to refuse services, and establishing patient- and worker-controlled facilities. These policies could be achieved by building power outside the state—creating an avenue where disabled people, healthcare workers, and patients can set the agenda.
For many in the DSA and outside it the struggle for Medicare for All may be enough. Even if it falls short of socialism, the movement could be an important start in building a base of people power. Its flaws are real, but it could get passed and extend health insurance to millions. The debate here is sticky, and for good reason. Medical care, maybe more obviously than other industries, is a matter of life or death, and the system’s failures fall far more heavily on some than on others. What is at stake is not the abstract transition to socialism, or communism, or state capitalism, but the lives of disabled and poor people. An alternative, anti-capitalist medical system that arrives too slow or half-assed means that poor and disabled people won’t receive life-saving care. State-run medical care that is exploitative and oriented toward the bottom line also exploits those same disabled and poor people, and its failures mean continued abuse and neglect.
Beyond healthcare, the stakes in many other sectors of the economy are also, increasingly, a matter of life and death—as climate catastrophe goes on, our alternatives will be tested by their ability to save lives. What does Burns’s other strategy, building new programs outside of the state, look like in the commodity-producing industries we depend on? Can we take hold of farms, factories, and more on our own?
About two years before the bankruptcy at Vio.Me, the workers of Republic Windows in Chicago found themselves in a similar situation. Republic had filed for bankruptcy, and in three days would close shop and begin selling off its plant and equipment. There would be no severance pay, no vacation pay, and health insurance would stop immediately. All this flagrantly violated federal law, which mandates a sixty-day notice and full compensation for missed wages before any large-scale layoff. Meanwhile, Bank of America would be paid out by the federal government for all the debts Republic had been unable to pay.
In a widely publicized turn of events, the workers decided to go on strike. The strike was what Michael Moore called “an old-fashioned sit-down strike”—workers staying in shifts, blocking both production and the chance to remove any more machines. The local community supported them with food and bodies at the protest, and the story traveled widely around the US. Three years before the slogan was everywhere in Occupy, workers chanted “banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” And they won. JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America granted them 1.75 million in back pay, healthcare, and compensation for earned vacation time. A new company took over the factory, and the workers kept their jobs.
As time wore on the same crisis returned. Serious Energy, the new owner, had to cut back and that meant ditching their window factory, along with the people who worked there. Rather than take the hit, some of the workers chose this time to stop the cycle and purchase the factory for themselves. They reached out to their community, eventually securing $665,000 of startup capital from The Working World, an organization that provides loans to worker-owned businesses. Even with capital in hand, “the workers weren’t being given a place at the negotiating table, and even that right had to be fought for as workers marched in front of investment banks and signatures poured in to support the workers. Finally, the workers were allowed in, and a deal was struck to allow the workers to buy what they needed to run their own factory.” In early 2013, after all these cycles of struggle, protest, and outreach, the factory was reopened as New Era Windows.
New Era is now a worker-cooperative. This means they no longer have a boss—decisions are made democratically—and most workers are also partial owners of the business. Operating as a democratically run, justice-minded business in the capitalist marketplace has real challenges. For New Era, they are now tasked with running a profitable business and doing so with a minimum of exploitation. The money they were able to raise was modest for a factory, and has meant they are much smaller than the old Republic Windows. In the case of Vio.Me, they are still waiting for their ownership to be formally recognized. The land they occupy might still be sold out from under them, and if that does happen they will likely be evicted. In both instances, capitalism and the rules that govern it still have their say—and what they say usually contradicts any positive social aim.
The problem with the market is that, without outside intervention, it won’t do much to redistribute wealth. Presumably small co-ops may be able to save their small profits—squirreling away savings, carefully tightening belts, and finding ways to grow a cooperative economy. But accumulating savings isn’t the kind of thing that builds real wealth, at least not in the aggregate. Loans are what works, as the example of New Era makes clear. As Mehrsa Baradaran in The Color of Money has recently pointed out, the racial wealth gap in the US was created through policy, particularly credit policy. Low-interest Federal Housing Authority loans went overwhelmingly to white families back in the 1940s and 50s, and Black people were systematically denied credit through a process called “redlining.” With home loans, white families accrued large, stable assets, leading to more opportunities for wealth, making it easier to pay down debt—and so on. Those who have access only to high-interest predatory loans or no loans at all, like many Black would-be borrowers, find themselves in a vicious cycle that is the reverse of the improving fortunes of white families. Bad debt leads families to lose generational savings and, in turn, deprives them of any chance of future borrowing. On the other side, cooperative banks and credit unions dependent on small deposits rather than loans are volatile, less able to grow, and unable to reinvest. As Zenobia Jeffries Warfield puts it, “capital can’t concentrate in areas where capital doesn’t exist.”
Funding then becomes a challenge limiting cooperative movements for many Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, particularly poorer people. Without strategies to redistribute wealth, “people will at best merely continue to circulate the same meager dollars for generations to come—no matter how many local cooperatives and credit unions they have.” Even where non-profit charities intervene, many of the same dynamics reappear. Jeffries Warfield describes the struggles of economic justice organizations to get grants; the grants themselves are distributed through unequal competitions for funds, where the group “that has the ‘best capacity’ to manage the funds” prevails. Older, richer, and whiter organizations win out, as big budgets perpetuate big budgets. For many, even victory means dependency on fickle donors. Elandria Williams and Jazmine Walker note that in the history of southern farm co-ops, those that were dependent on “federal assistance or northern liberals for capital and marketing ultimately fail” because sooner or later funding is diverted when “shifting political winds redirect social consciences towards other causes.”
In the early 2000s, when Argentinian workers rose up and seized their factories, many saw these risks clearly and chose not to call for worker ownership at all. Rather they pushed for “nationalization under worker control”—transferring the financial (and debt) burden to the state, and maintaining their labor and social-security protections as workers. Workers of the Brukman garment factory wrote in 2003, “we said that we were open to other legal forms. But we don’t agree to accept a micro-entrepreneurship, destined to fail, [ . . .] where we should end up carrying enormous debts on our workers’ shoulders and where we should pay from our own pockets social security charges and pension.”
The Argentinian government, however, had no such plans. Most factory takeovers, the ones that didn’t fail outright, were pushed to become formal cooperatives—with the workers taking on debt, risk, and all of the broken machinery and infrastructure that pushed their factories into bankruptcy in the first place. As Marina Kabat describes, “frequently a vicious cycle emerges in which a lack of capital impels workers to adopt certain kinds of productive strategies, which in turn perpetuate the shortage of capital.”
At the Brukman factory this meant contract work, using materials supplied by the buyers. Working on these kinds of contracts means that margins were lower, making it harder to save up and acquire new materials and machines. One worker, interviewed in 2008, said “we’ve been struggling for six years and in fact instead of going up we’re going down. I can tell you that everything is great, that we sell to everyone, but that’s not true. At the end of the week you get two pesos. It is a political matter, but I believe that under capitalism cooperatives don’t work.”
As dire as that sounds, there are at least a few people who disagree. Richard Wolff—author of Democracy At Work: A Cure for Capitalism—among many others these days, looks to the Mondragon Corporation in Spanish Basque Country as an example of a cooperative that does work very well. In fact he described it as a “stunningly successful alternative to the capitalist organization of production.” He is right that it is actually very successful—it employs around seventy-three thousand workers across many industries, controls billions in assets, and its workers enjoy a fairly high standard of living. During the Spanish financial collapse of the 1980s and early 1990s, when bankruptcies rolled through Basque Country and unemployment was 27 percent, fewer than one percent of Mondragon employees, or “co-operators,” were out of work. At the expense of pissing off its white collar workers—who frequently make less than market rate—pay for top executives is only 4.5 times the lowest-paid co-operator. And they’re still growing strong, after almost sixty years of existence.
Still, the problems of capitalism in large part remain. Conflicts between management and labor persist, and the “democratic controls” technically available are often ineffective or out of reach for shop floor workers. Pollution has historically been awful in the area, and the corporation has not done much to solve it. Maybe more importantly, its ability to reach past itself and form bonds of solidarity with others is weakened by its lack of political content. Mondragon’s success began with the rejection of class struggle in favor of working class self-help. Socialism was scrupulously avoided, and since the 1990s an attitude of “post-ideological pragmatism” has reigned supreme. These qualities let it thrive under decades of fascist and neoliberal governance, living as a quietly egalitarian form of Basque nationalism and an example of a “left” that fascists might tolerate. As Mondragon expands outside of Europe, few of its foreign workers are brought into ownership, and an exploited second-tier of pure employees has become a greater part of its business model.
Though the gains of such new models of ownership are clear, so are their limits. Whoever takes the reins—whether the state, a union, or some organized workers—they will be tasked with managing some small part of capitalism. They will need to respond to industry-set prices, prevailing costs of living, and whatever terms banks might dictate. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, regarding the cooperatives of her own era: “as a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital—that is, pitiless exploitation—becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise.”
Institution of democratic controls can happen, and it can happen relatively quickly, but democratically managed capitalism is different from a classless society, where people directly manage their own affairs. Until then, democratic management in one firm, one state, one industry will appear as a softer, and maybe more empowering, form of self-exploitation. What’s more, it will also be forced to rely on the harsher exploitation that occurs at other steps along the supply chain, in other workshops and industries. It’s not impossible to imagine a renewed sector of worker-owned fabrication, dependent completely on aluminum stolen from Indigenous lands and petrochemicals sourced from right-wing dictatorships, pursuing a business strategy which pollutes the world’s oceans. That’s not so far off from what Mondragon is doing, in fact.
So seizing any business or industry poses one basic question: is the problem with capitalism how wealth is distributed, or how wealth is made? Put a little differently: is the problem that workers don’t receive, in return for their labor, the full value of the goods and services they produce, or is the problem that people’s access to what they need to survive depends on how much value they generate in a day’s work?
“This infrastructure, built up in politically quiet times, has the ability to become a force of revolution.”
Taking ownership over workplaces—whether through revolution or gradual change—offers one answer to this question. Behind such actions are implicit, commonsense demands for wages that match each worker’s real output. Implied also are demands for a kind of socially recognized dignity through labor, a recognition of the unique knowledge and skill the worker possesses, and a demand that they be allowed to freely determine how best to conduct their work. Such demands arise when work is both the source of oppression and, through increased wages and improved conditions, the means for an escape from it—when ownership is both denied and attractive.
But this isn’t the economic reality for many of us, who are excluded from formal wages. It isn’t the reality for many disabled people, workers in informal or illegal sectors, and many others. It isn’t the reality for people who work in sectors that have no, or limited, purpose outside of capitalism—in retail, banking, advertising. It isn’t the reality for those of us whose jobs just fucking suck, damage our bodies, bore us to tears, poison us and our communities. If we truly accounted for the costs of these jobs—in medical care, in environmental cleanup—we would never keep them around. How could that capital be redistributed? Why would you?
Wages and money imply exploitation—if not yours, then someone else’s. Through money and the wage, we individualize ownership, and where these instruments remain true collective ownership is thwarted. Nonetheless, many of the struggles for worker ownership described above have attempted to break free from the gravity exerted by money, wages, prices, and profit. The act of taking a factory over by blockades and underground networks is already that kind of counter-force, contradicting how capital is accumulated and lost. At Vio.Me the decision to turn a caustic chemical factory into a soap factory, and to depend on social support rather than finance capital, to maximize welfare rather than profit, is a step in that direction. In Argentina, the unfulfilled demand to nationalize and forgive the factories’ debt while socializing management would have been another small step.
To go beyond worker ownership would mean moving past commodity production altogether, decommodifying the economy. In decommodification, basic needs are fulfilled for free at the point of access. Community land trusts, for example, can take housing off the open market indefinitely and place ownership in a non-profit corporation. These trusts can, at their best, be governed democratically by their residents, managed not as an investment but as a home and source of power. In Europe, networks of squats have often filled a similar role, providing housing and social centers without rent. In such experiments, we glimpse the beginning of what a post-capitalist world will need.
Dual Power in Mississippi
Today, in Jackson, Mississippi, other routes to decommodification are being explored, led by Cooperation Jackson, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the New African People’s Organization, whose combined efforts follow the Jackson-Kush Plan.
In the words of its drafters, the Jackson-Kush Plan is “an initiative to build a base of autonomous power in Mississippi concentrated in Jackson and the eastern Black Belt portions of the state.” The Plan’s roots stretch deep—through decades of organizing work for Black liberation in the South, and into the Provisional Government of New Afrika’s drive to establish a community in Bolton, Mississippi in the early 1970s. It comprises three main objectives: “Building People’s Assemblies, Building an Independent Black Political Party, and Building a Broad-based Solidarity Economy.”
People’s assemblies are directly democratic ways of building and consolidating power, which can serve to carry out organizing campaigns, build long-term alliances, and form the political backbone of other victories. Relying on this power base outside the state, an independent Black political party can engage “electoral politics on a limited scale with the express intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the Assemblies themselves.” This is done not to legitimize existing government, but rather to “negate its repressive powers,” while leveraging “every available means of power to save lives and improve conditions.”
“It’s not impossible to imagine a renewed sector of worker-owned fabrication, dependent completely on aluminum stolen from Indigenous lands and petrochemicals sourced from right-wing dictatorships, pursuing a business strategy which pollutes the world’s oceans.”
These essential gains in political power assist, and are in turn assisted by, a solidarity economy, oriented toward building economic democracy, transitioning towards socialism, and decommodifying land and housing. Still, solidarity economy is a means to an end as much as an end in and of itself. The authors of the Jackson-Kush Plan “are clear that in order to build socialism something more than just the principles and institutions of economic and social solidarity will be needed.” Solidarity economies may not be able to achieve the end of capitalism—but they can transform consciousness, build power, and throw the contradictions of capitalism into sharper relief.
Cooperation Jackson was born as a way to establish the solidarity economy of the J-K Plan. Thus far it has created the Kuwasi Balagoon Center, the Freedom Farms Cooperative, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Land Trust, which possesses over thirty properties in Jackson. From these beginnings, Cooperation Jackson is aiming for a large, interconnected cooperative network, with housing co-ops fed by cooperative farms, and cooperative manufacturing supplying cooperative construction. These projects are still small, and development is slow, but the process shows no signs of stopping.
To date, the Jackson-Kush Plan has also produced two huge electoral victories—the election of Chokwe Lumumba as the Mayor of Jackson in 2013, and the election of his son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba in 2017. People’s assemblies have persisted throughout that time, with attendance waxing and waning, but their influence on local politics has been decisive. As Kali Akuno writes, these institutions are aimed at “the development of a counter hegemonic, liberating economic, and social infrastructure” able not only to challenge but to overcome the existing economic system. This infrastructure, built up in politically quiet times, has the ability to become a force of revolution. Akuno again: “during revolutionary periods, Assemblies, when buttressed by revolutionary political parties, can effectively become the government and assume control over the basic processes and mechanisms of production.” Becoming the government is, however, dramatically different than putting a new bureaucracy in place. Akuno points to the 1986 overthrow of “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti—a moment where the people’s government erected barricades, coordinated general strikes, seized aid trucks, and distributed food and other resources. Institutions served to organize and agitate for revolution, but important affairs were administered by assemblies of strikers and rioters themselves.
In this sense, the Jackson-Kush Plan offers a model of dual power, an attempt to build something in parallel to the state that might actually displace it. Theirs is not a strategy for “wielding state power,” but carefully engaging with it. Trying to run the existing state as a movement “of New Afrikan or Black liberation whose strategic aim is . . . the decolonization of the southeastern portion of the US” makes for a contradiction. But limited, case by case engagement with electoral politics can open space for other organizing projects, and make crucial, sometimes life-saving gains. The center of power nonetheless remains outside the state and, in a moment of crisis, might overcome it.
All three aspects of the Plan—economic democracy, people’s assemblies, and electoral work—require balanced and careful coordination. Within Jackson there are plenty of disagreements about how that should occur. Elections in particular are tricky. They can drain resources from and crowd out other projects, and the faces they put on a movement can risk disempowering everyone else. The absence of a truly independent political party, as called for in the Jackson-Kush Plan, as well as the Lumumba administration’s proximity to the Democratic Party, has meant there is a greater risk that the officials the movement elects are out of step with everyone else.
In a 2016 interview, Kali Akuno spoke about the dangers of Chokwe Antar’s campaign for mayor: “We’re setting ourselves up to administer the most severe austerity the city’s seen probably since the Civil War.” These kinds of disappointments are common in politics—many Black mayors in the US have been tasked with managing serious financial and infrastructural problems, impairing their ability to make change. You can see those contradictions emerge, on a larger scale, in Greece’s Syriza—which ran and won on an anti-austerity platform, only to later accede to even larger budget cuts.
Still, there can be no downplaying the potential and power of the movement in Jackson. As an extension of the centuries-deep struggle for Black self-determination, Cooperation Jackson is poised to change more than the faces at the top. Across the world Black people are excluded from economic participation—a direct legacy of the slavery and colonialism which sought to make Black and Indigenous people and land into mere things, into capital to be stolen and bought. Fighting for the liberation of Black and Indigenous people means challenging this disposability, and with it some of the deepest parts of the current capitalist economy, as evidenced by mineral and fossil fuel extraction, on the one hand, and the prison system, on the other. To do so, we must develop an idea of socialism that is more than “the workers owning the fruits of their labor”—a socialism that includes the millions whose labor may never be counted as profitable. Likewise, this conception requires white leftists to abandon their paternalism and willful ignorance, to be quickly disabused of the idea that their struggles are universal.
The propertyless, the landless, and the poor can take power. But seizing the means of production is not the end of that process. Worker ownership is just the beginning of a world where everything is held in common. To get there we will need a large and vibrant radical infrastructure, able to conserve and reinforce anticapitalist gains. We will also need to transition immediately into a strategy of decommodifying vital industries, finding ways to meet our needs in the absence of money and markets. In short: we will need a coherent economic bloc, able to make a break with capitalism.
An economic bloc can’t be thought of narrowly. Imagining economic activity in money terms is for the capitalists and benefits them exclusively. Social movements can overcome the funding problems described above by availing themselves of invisible reserves of volunteered time and other resources, not measurable in terms of dollars. A strike, for example, requires a strike fund but it also requires vast networks of solidarity to keep everyone fed and keep spirits high.
Occupation protests require tents, food, communication equipment, and transportation, much of it donated or improvised rather than bought, along with the volunteered time of thousands, not measurable in dollars. These networks are essential to the success of strikes, occupations, and blockades in the present, but they are also the stepping stone if not the basis for future revolutionary success. Small, gradual moves will never add up to a new socialist or communist order. These alternatives are not the formation of a “new world in the shell of the old,” as the old Wobbly slogan has it. If a robust and radical solidarity economy is now a part of a political horizon, it will be a limit later on. Last year’s revolution becomes this year’s bureaucracy, and change requires pushing past what present conditions allow.
A new world requires a break. A break with the institutions of colonialism and slavery, a break with the cheap energy and plastic and environmental degradation that fuels most industries. It requires that the existing system not just be pushed back, but stopped dead. But even if an insurrection were to change everything, it would emerge as a consequence of those who had organized themselves before. Nothing that gets close to taking power happens without years of capacity building. This gradual work of experimentation and opening up possibility is essential for revolutionary change—even if it cannot be that change itself.
An economy belonging to all will require some kind of revolution. Until then, the kind of careful, capacity-building work the Black Panther Party once called “survival pending revolution” is essential, inasmuch as it is also the case that every revolution is “revolution pending survival.” We can’t simply scale up solidarity economies until they crowd out capitalism, but the resources we develop now will play an important part in the radically different forms that emerge after capitalism. For now, we can find what we need to live despite capitalism and, maybe, the beginnings of something else.