In guide 15, it was pointed out that in the 19th and 20th centuries, even the pro-capitalist elites were compelled to create numerous non-profit institutions and organisations. This was because private enterprises were not adequate vehicles for maintaining long-term high standards in; schools; armed forces; national and local government departments or Parliaments; law courts; hospitals and universities etc. Such radical developments of socio-economic forms represented the future non-profit mode of production emerging from within the existing capitalist mode. However, these particular state-initiated ‘public services’ were not the only non-profit forms of organisation which emerged during that period.
Early in the development of capitalism and in reaction to poor quality service and often adulterated goods, working people created Co-operative societies. In Britain, co-operative shops, businesses, delivery systems and eventually, farms, banks, building societies, funeral services along with education/training centre’s were established. A few humanistic minded members of the bourgeois class, such as Robert Owen even opened up co-operative factories. Despite some initial setbacks, all these alternatives were fundamentally successful. However, located as they were within a capitalist economic system even their success became something of a double – edged sword.
The working conditions and pay for ‘cooperative’ staff was generally better, than those in the private sector, which meant that the prices for their goods and services were generally higher. This situation was only sustainable as long as people could afford to pay the extra cost for the extra quality. However, the existence of large numbers of poorly paid workers in private capitalist concerns, exerted two negative forces upon co-operative methods of production. First of all low paid workers could not always afford the extra costs of cooperatively produced goods and services. Secondly, the low pay, long hours and poor conditions in the private sector translated into lower prices for these capitalist produced goods and services. This enabled them to undercut the prices of cooperative businesses.
In addition to being able to sell products cheaper, because of greater exploitation of working people, there was another way that capitalists could undermine the cooperative mode of production. An outstanding example of this method is provided by the way a group of capitalists in the cotton trade dealt with the previously mentioned Robert Owen and his thriving, cooperatively run cotton mill in New Lanark. They organised a boycott of raw cotton from suppliers who sold to Owen. Faced with this threat, raw cotton supplies to Owen’s mills were curtailed and the mills and model villages around them ground to a halt. Eventually, he had to close them. The example of successful alternative modes of production for the working class majority had been eliminated in order to maintain the source of profits of the capitalist few.
However, the apparent ‘failure’ of cooperation was not a failure from a working class perspective. If the private sectors hours of work, pay and conditions had been essentially the same as in the cooperative movement, instead of much lower, then there could have been a different outcome of struggle between these alternative modes of production. Moreover, the removal of the private profit – motive under cooperative modes and public service models meant that the short – cuts in production methods of the capitalist sector were deemed unnecessary. Therefore attention could be addressed – as many were – to external consequences such as obtaining sustainable raw materials, eliminating pollution, avoiding toxic ingredients, consequential ecological damage, improving health, safety and education issues for workers and communities.
Indeed, all or at least most of the issues now threatening the extinction of species and the degradation of planetary environments, climate patterns and weather conditions, could have been avoided decades ago by a completed transition to a mode of production fully committed to public need rather than private greed. In contrast to capitalist perspectives, success or failure in terms of economic and social production needs to be measured by its positive or negative effects upon the well-being of the planet and all its inhabitants. Yet the pro-capitalist elite measure economic success in terms of how much can be produced at the least cost, whilst making a relative few citizens obscenely rich. So, the fact that there are perfectly sound examples of alternative forms of sustainable non-profit production, distribution and organisation, (cooperatives and public services) has been seen as something to undermine or to privatise by the neo – liberal economic, financial and political elites.
The fact that capitalist societies are structured hierarchically with wealth and power concentrated at the top (and reinforced by the coercive power of the state) means that only changes which benefit the elite will be made. But the double standard involved among the elite in this regard is transparently evident by those who happen to occupy senior positions in non-profit government organisations, such as government departments, Parliaments, Universities etc. Whilst championing the benefits of private enterprise and precarious competitive employment for low – paid workers, these elites jealously protect their own high – paid, permanent employment, perks and pensions granted by the non-profit forms of organisation in modern states.
A similar double-standard operates elsewhere in periods of acute economic or financial crisis. When these occur the heads of large and small private enterprises are among the first to call for substantial public funds to be donated to them to tide them over the crisis until profits can be made once again. It happened prior and during the 2008 banking crisis and will happen again after the COVID – 19 viruus causes dislocations in the economic circuit of capital. Stripped of its rhetoric this frequent pattern amounts to the best of both worlds for capitalists and the worst of both for working people. Social tax-payer support when capitalist profits cannot be made, privately pocketed profits when they can.
That this is considered acceptable when there are viable alternatives demonstrates the power of pro-capitalist ideology on populations in general. It is something the new generations of working people need to increasingly challenge and change.
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2020)