Cooperation Without Capital: An Introduction

Cooperation Without Capital: An Introduction

Just Seeds Image- Worker saying "The Boss Needs You - You Don't Need the Boss"
Image by Just Seeds.

Blake Underwood introduces his upcoming Indyreader series, Cooperation Without Capital, where he will explore the state of and ideology behind worker cooperatives, both in Baltimore and beyond.

Now entering its second year, the current wave of global revolt has captured the radical imagination and inspired many thousands of activists, organizers, and politicized citizens to take to the streets in response to a diverse range of political, economic and cultural contractions. From democratic uprisings stretching across the Middle East and anti-police brutality riots in London, to anti-austerity protests in Wisconsin and the broad movement of occupations found in countless American cities, activist organization has arguably reached a level of global concentration not seen for more than a decade.

Workers’ unions and labor struggles have always been a central element of long-term social justice work. However in the current environment, it seems a rare case where such elements are found to be a central organizing apparatus of the most visible actions and movements. In the United States, only the aforementioned Wisconsin protests maintained a labor-led base, while also gaining national and international attention. Now apparent is the necessity for workers to seize upon the opportunities created by the broad, diverse social movements emerging across the globe, and in doing so, to expand the importance and legacy of these movements by presenting a more acute challenge to the domination of capital.

Though not a solitary vector of resistance, the importance of labor justice can hardly be overestimated, as work often remains the chief interlocutor between capital and its subjects.  Worker-cooperatives have long been a tool of the libertarian left, used to mediate the connection between capital and its subjects by fomenting horizontal labor relations and attempting to build communities from the bottom-up. Relying on principles of self-management, autonomy and mutual aid, cooperatives provide an opportunity for all laborers to democratically control the nature of their work and wages. The importance of such control rests not only in its direct impact on the participating laborers, but also in the resulting social relations, which are then less obscured by the masks of hierarchical power and domination.

Some workplaces operate on a consensus model, where all cooperative members have the ability to block decisions to which they have strong objections and would thus endanger their ability to continue their involvement in the project. Others use more traditional models, such as open-voting, which requires super-majority approval for passage. Regardless of the decision-making model used, cooperatives rely on an understanding of democracy that goes to the heart of the word. Cooperative members are not seen simply as disembodied votes, but rather as fully realized contributors, whose investment in and relationship to their project is seen as integral to its success, both political and practical.

Today, with many of the most prominent labor unions becoming professionalized bureaucracies, cooperatives have become an even more important tool for the democratization of the workplace. Rather than becoming de facto tools for co-optation and manipulation by those who would seek to stifle labor organizing—namely management—cooperatives completely wrest decision-making power from an authoritarian elite, and place it, equally, in the hands of each and every stakeholder.

One need look no further than our city of Baltimore to find a diverse array of projects implementing cooperative models as realistic alternatives to capital-driven labor relations. Baltimore Bicycle Works (BBW), a worker-owned and -operated bike shop, found in the Station North neighborhood, is just one example of laborers using their experience in order to reconceptualize the work they perform under new egalitarian modes. Though divisions of labor still exist due to levels of ability and expertise, the workers at BBW maintain commitments to equitable responsibility, decision-making, and compensation. As a cooperative, BBW understands that though certain elements of work may at times be out of balance—like productive work versus administrative work and bike maintenance versus book-keeping—production is multi-faceted and relies upon various types of labor that must be valued equally and understood horizontally. And while in practice, these intentions will sometimes breakdown and be lost in the ongoing struggle with capitalist relations, cooperatives like BBW endeavor to constantly reevaluate the nature of their project, while seeking new ways to democratize and humanize their labor.

Declared the International Year of the Cooperative (IYC) by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, 2012 is a year which can and must bring more attention to the role and impact of worker cooperatives. With goals to increase awareness and promote growth of worker cooperatives, the IYC mandate tasks UN member states with creating structural opportunities for cooperatives to propagate their models and intensify their impact on socio-economic development. This international recognition of the importance of cooperatives, as tools for true democracy and empowerment, forces us to reexamine our existing cooperative projects and the theories that undergird them.

There are many important questions that we must continue to ask: For those of us who are critical of state-intervention and its potential to erode truly democratic institutions, how can we utilize expanding opportunities for movement building, while also recognizing the antagonism that naturally exists between our movement and the state which remains beholden to capital? Can we resist co-optation, and thereby prevent having our own models turned against us? Can the potential for long-lasting, wide-ranging change present itself as a prefigurative step towards labor liberation and, more importantly, the destruction of capital? Does the ubiquity of work force us to confront the dominant labor systems from the inside, as well as the outside? Answering these questions must be of the highest priority. If through these state-centered political openings, our only possible endpoint is one where our cooperative projects are seen as fundamentally important, yet no longer maintain an explicit radical, anti-capitalist modality, then we must seek other, less problematic opportunities.

Cooperation Without Capital—a series of articles which will continue regularly on the Indypendent Reader website (—is an attempt to reexamine and understand the role of labor organization, and specifically that of worker cooperatives, in the larger arena of social movements and radical activism. Too often we begin to understand our everyday lives—our social relationships, our leisure, our labor—as existing outside the spaces of our activism. Yet, under capital, the public and the private, the deliberate and the “everyday”, are rarely separable. To examine one sphere, we must fully engage with the other. By their very nature, cooperatives should force us to encounter this duality, but such an observation is neither universal nor widely debated. Let us start that debate here and now.

As true as ever, this is only the beginning. Future articles will search for answers to the questions enumerated above and attempt to critically interrogate the assumptions that we and others make in regard to labor, cooperatives, and activism in general. The wide array of coverage, found in this series, will include: ongoing reports from developments related to the International Year of the Cooperative, personal anecdotes from within the radical cooperative community, and theoretical ruminations on the politics that underlie all of our cooperative projects. Please follow along as we navigate a year already imbued with revolutionary hope, and one that is sure to be filled with change, for better or worse.


To hear Underwood speak publicly about worker cooperatives, please attend his panel discussion: Saturday, June 2nd, 2012, from 9-10am in VLP Room 3 - as part of the Mobilizing and Organizing from Below Conference (MOBconf), - here in Baltimore, MD:

Beginning at the Center: Worker Cooperatives and Prefigurative Labor
As the current wave of global revolt continues to expand and broaden its range of targets, it becomes increasingly important for radical activists to lend attention to the everyday structures that characterize the capitalist landscape. We must not ignore our daily labor as a key vector of analysis and resistence. Worker cooperatives act not only as a tool toward the liberation of labor but also as a crucial resource for the creation of alternative structures that might carry us through, and persist after, the end of capitalism. Using Baltimore's vibrant community as an example of horizontal experimentation, this workshop will explore the implementation of cooperative structures and how they create opportunities for radical social intervention.

Blake Underwood is a dog walker, activist, and writer in Baltimore City. A founding member of Just Walk, Baltimore's only worker-owned and operated pet care cooperative, the only boss he answers to is Pisella, his cat and one true love.