Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The geometric dog days of summer

The phone doesn't ring. Insects buzz through an open window. There's almost no traffic in town. Why does work feel more futile than usual in August?

Why don't business networks take off until they reach a certain size?

What have these got to do with each other? The effects of arithmetic versus geometric progression.

I run Principle Six co-operative business referral events, where people fulfil other network members' business 'asks' by making third party introductions to people from their own contact book.

If, every time a networking group added a new member, the number of referrals increased by the same amount, that would be a 'straight line', or arithmetic, progression. Let's say there are 10 people in the network, and each of them can make 5 possible referrals. That would mean 50 potential referrals. When the group grew to 6, you'd get 55 possibilities; and when the group expanded to 20, it would make 100 potential connections.

But in fact the progression isn't arithmetic - it's geometric. It goes more like this:

The number of potential referrals in a group of 5 people is represented by the sequence 4+3+2+1 = 10. In a group of 10, it's 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 = 45. On the same lines, for a group of 20 networkers it's 190, and for 40 it's 780. In other words, every time the group doubles in size, the potential benefit to the members increases roughly fourfold. And actually the number of potential connections in a group of 40 isn't 780, it's more of the order of 10,000.

A business network of 10 people is not worth the effort. A network of 20 is the minimum you really need, and 40 is probably ideal if you want the members to know each other and create lots of business interactions and opportunities.

The geometric principle also works in reverse. In August, when a quarter of the workers disappear to the beach or the park, the world of work seems to slow to a special grind. Those of us still toiling wonder what we're doing. The workers' battlecries "Never work!" and "Sous les pav├ęs, la plage!" resonate with awful meaning.




Friday, 7 March 2014

The precarious generation of creative workers


Despite hits from tuition fees and the rising cost of living in centres like London, there was a 25% increase in the numbers of students doing design and creative arts degrees in the UK between 2003 and 2010 – up from 139,000 to 174,000, which is around 7% of the total numbers of students.

So about 50,000 design and creative arts graduates are coming onto the labour market each year. Although many of them are overseas students, and despite the superficial vigour of the creative industries sector, this enormous number of new workers is far more than the creative industries can absorb. In 2011, more than 1/3 of creative graduates were without full-time work three years after graduation. In addition, the UK – and particularly London – is at least temporarily home to many mobile, underemployed young creative workers from EU countries where their economic prospects are dire. And these statistics of course exclude non-university educated workers coming into the creative industries fray.



Traditionally, fine art graduates worked for gallerists as unpaid assistants or apprentice curators for low or no wages, in an industry which could be seen as one of the last strongholds of pre-C18th employment relations. This at least partly explains why the creative industries are playing such a prominent role in spreading temporary, part-time, unpaid or super exploited labour. Over the last 10 years, they have crossed over into design and the applied arts, the professions and other industries.

Many design agencies and arts organisations use a constant churn of skilled and productive long-term interns, sometimes comprising a third or more of the workforce, with only the more senior employees earning what would have been considered a decent income twenty years ago. Along with changes to the benefits system and the rise of workfare, this is one jaw of a pincer movement which has produced in a substantial layer of precarious young workers, sometimes called permalancers, carrotworkers or lifestyle hackers (GuyStanding).

‘Proletarianised’ creative (and other) workers have responded by developing agile, collaborative and creative approaches not just to work, but to the necessities of life including accommodation, leisure and social support, relying more or less entirely on their own resources and networks.

This is the other half of the ‘innovation’ story, and it’s where we should look to understand why creative workers may be particularly responsive to the utility of a model defined as ‘men and women coming together to meet their shared economic, social and cultural needs through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise’ - the co-operative.

“The people in my network don’t really understand the difference between employment and self-employment. I know that being employed brings rights which self-employed people don’t have, like holiday and sick pay, protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and so on. I sometimes think that our generation hasn’t fought for or defended those rights, so we don’t understand them.”

Those are (more or less) the words of an educated ‘GenerationY’-er. It’s suggestive of the extent to which her cohort has become so detached from traditional educated working class discourse, attitudes and protocols that it regards them as almost irrelevant, along with trade unionism and representative politics.

The following remarks are based on my experience of working with groups of young creative workers as a co-operative business advisor, and also my conversations with individuals and groups of students, teachers and graduates about the nature and benefits of co-operative approaches to work and creative life, at institutions including City University, The University of the Arts (Camberwell, LCC and Central St Martins), East London, Bristol and Brighton Universities, the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths.

  • Collaborative practice is taught in many design and arts schools. It is therefore familiar and normal for many students and graduates, although the primacy of individual genius and effort go with the territory, especially and obviously in fine and applied arts.

  • Most if not all of these institutions, and many schools, now include some form of ‘PPD’ or business education as part of their offering; for instance, University of the Arts holds an annual ‘Creative Enterprise Week’.  As in the UK’s business schools, the co-operative model  is marginalised by default in these programmes, although other forms of social enterprise are often included. There is a rich opportunity for co-operative practitioners, activists and business advisors here, but they have to be both proactive and credible in finding platforms and opportunities to get their message across, and they need to be able to back up talk with ongoing support and advice.

  • Like the graduate cohort in front of them, the unpaid or underpaid internship model is now regarded by many students as axiomatic, whether they think it desirable or not. Advocating collective and ultimately co-operative working as an approach to the prospect of exploitation, isolation and underemployment is a very fruitful line – for instance, I am currently advising two co-operative startups  (ceramics designer/makers and set designer/makers) as the outcome of a single seminar at St. Martins. Some design and arts teachers, perhaps more familiar with previous waves of creative co-operation, and in the face of the industrialisation of higher education, are as receptive as their students - even to the idea of the co-operative university (Goldsmiths).

  • Many in this cohort are disengaged from mainstream political ideas and institutions, and receptive to ideas of self-organisation, new forms of democracy, the commons and fundamental social change (the Occupy aftereffect). They are internationalists. They are as animated by motives of personal self-development, sustainability and community good as they are by their prospects for individual material gain. They are not as imbued with a love of ‘entrepreneurship’ and business as everyone is telling them they should be, but they are strongly influenced by the ideology of ‘innovation’. This is both a barrier and an opportunity for getting over a co-operative message, and it depends whether we pitch it as a ‘business model’ or a technology for meeting needs and serving desires, collectively.

  • There are some parallels with the context for the last wave of worker co-op formations in 70s and early 80s, most of which were founded by people looking to fulfil political, social or environmental goals as well as looking to create decent jobs on a basis of equality, solidarity and autonomy. There are important differences which present barriers to co-operation and co-operative startups. This generation has less collective confidence and lower expectations in terms of its place in, engagement with and rewards from the formal economy. Perhaps more importantly, with the usual issues around capital, sweat equity is harder to accumulate because the dole doesn’t provide a breathing space. ‘Necessity’ means something different. Effective co-operative advocacy must comprehend this.

  • While sharing a vague knowledge of co-operatives with the rest of the population, they regard co-operatives as a good thing and contemporary rather than old-fashioned. They are as unaffected by the decadence of parts of the existing co-op movement as we were.

  • Medium term, to influence this cohort and see results, we need to focus on pre startups. The most fruitful area will be working with existing collectives, networks and informal enterprises who want to go from mutuality to co-operation, from small to larger scale, from barter to trading, from individual risk to collective protection and getting the benefits of limited liability.

  • We should class and treat any consortium of self-employed creative workers as a worker co-operative, if its main shared purpose is to enhance work. The people I talk to readily self-identify as workers, even if they’re not in a position to, or don’t wish to, become employees. The current Co-operatives UK and CICOPA definitions, which suggest that only employees can be members of a worker co-op, are not flexible enough. It’s also a reason to use the language of worker co-operation, not employee ownership, when talking to this cohort.

I have focused here on young workers in design and applied arts. The wider creative industries context has much in common with other industry sectors, as does the situation of young workers here and elsewhere in the world.

What’s perhaps special about creative industries and creative workers is their degree of familiarity with sharing technologies and shallow-hierarchy enterprise models, strong social clustering and peer networking of workers, geographical clustering of businesses, and the relative parity of status and skills.

We can’t predict the desire or capacity of any group of people participating in an industry to create a wave of co-operative formations, but I do believe that this is as good a bet for us as any. As part of a sector-by-sector co-op development strategy, it would mean honing careful messages and delivering them to potentially receptive audiences using a network of competent activists, using resources developed centrally, then following words with practical support.



Saturday, 4 January 2014

Cookmaids and consumers




Nathaniel Bacon's 'Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit' (c. 1620) is a picture that makes Alain de Botton feel less alone. He says:

"... at it's best, consumerism is founded on a love of the fruits of the earth, delight in human ingenuity and due appreciation of the vast achievements of organised effort and trade ... A good response to consumerism might not be to live without melons and grapes, but to appreciate what really needs to go into providing them."

Bacon was a gentleman amateur artist. He probably picked up his painting style in the Low Countries, cradle of early modern mercantilism, where buxom servants surrounded by horticultural commodities were a popular subject. 

The luminous melons at the focal point of the painting may be another source of hope and reassurance for Botton, although he doesn't mention them. In fact he doesn't refer to the servant at all. She doesn't look very comfortable. That could be a response to her objectification, or maybe she's just nervous of the giant cabbages.

I don't really get this idea of 'conscious consumerism' (ethical or otherwise) as a route to self-realisation or social change. To me it makes far more sense to focus on the human, on the worker as subject. But I hope at least, from now on, Botton will get his solace from fairly traded melons and grapes.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Common ownership

I am amazed by the cooperative principles. They are a practical guide to 'what works now', based on the learning of cooperative activists. Yet they sometimes appear as commandments written in stone. Each principle has a lowest common denominator - democracy, education, sustainability. At another level, understood as a matrix of cooperative theory and practice, they are profound and revolutionary. They throw light on every aspect of the struggle to create a fully human social, economic and cultural life.

The International Co-operative Alliance is calling for responses to guidance papers on the principles. One of these is Jean-Louis Bancel's erudite commentary on the third principle, member economic participation. Like any set of texts with a quasi-talmudic character, the principles are the subject of deep and wide interpretation. Unlike them, the cooperative principles are revised from time to time, to reflect current conditions.

Over the years, I've persuaded myself that particular principles are a magic key to the others. I was mesmerised by principle six between 2004 and 2009 (cooperation between cooperatives) and principle four between 2009 and 2012 (autonomy). The third principle is often seen as the most knotty of the seven. Right now, I'm focusing on principle three, because it talks about common ownership as a characteristic of cooperatives.

Jean-Louis Bancel's paper refers to the particular importance of common ownership for worker cooperatives. Collective stewardship and control of the means of production are fundamental to worker coops' mission to provide 'decent' jobs, maintain the culture of equality and solidarity at work, provide a basis for members to develop their capacities, and underpin workers' autonomy and self-management.

Common ownership is the antithesis of private or state ownership. Creating commons is the opposite of creating enclosures or commoditising everyday life. It's a long time since most of the land and most of the means of production was taken out of common ownership. In the present, we're seeing intensive efforts to enclose, privatise and securitise such common goods as water, clean air, free time, open source technology and personal communication.

Meaningful cooperative action increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarianism and self-activity of workers, and helps them collectively define their own interests. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of workers, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, including those claiming to act on their behalf.

Cooperatives are meaningful when they align with the global movement to defend and extend the commons.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Stir to Action

The first number of the new print-only Stir magazine arrived today, and it's an inspiring read. Marina Sitrin's article on worker takeovers of factories and workshops in Argentina and Greece strikes a particular chord, because the UK's common ownership co-operatives - firms like Calverts and Suma - share so much with them in terms of politics and attitude, even though our co-ops were founded in a different context.

It affirms for me that we have at least as much in common with - and to learn from - autonomous workers outside the UK as we do with our domestic co-operative movement.

The article isn't, as far as I can tell, reproduced online. Luckily, Sitrin's writing on Argentina is freely available on her website. Or, if you'd like to take a £16 4-issue subscription, you can get Stir delivered, and read the other excellent articles, including good analysis of tax havens and the global cotton industry.

Alongside New Internationalist, Stir is turning into the closest thing we have to a radical co-operativist magazine in the UK.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Co-operatives and strikers in Italy

In a forthcoming article for a new workers' paper, migrant logistics workers in Italy describe their fight against attacks on wages and conditions at IKEA and TNT:

"During recent months migrant transport workers in the north of Italy have enforced significant improvements of their working and living conditions through hard strikes. Usually they are not directly employed, but through subcontractors, which are registered as so-called 'cooperatives'. If there are any problems or workers try to struggle against precarious conditions, these 'subcontractors' just change their official company name and status - and workers are left alone with their demands ...

"After a few months the Cooperative tried to go back to the conditions before the strike. It wanted to almost triple the average number of palettes; they cut most of the employees’ hours to 4 hours so that they compulsorily had to stay at home two days a week and only earned 400 euros a month. When productivity fell, everyone had to work overtime. In October they locked out about 90 workers, fired 12, through a struggle we were able to get 3 of these workers reinstated, so that 9 remained fired. So we blockaded the gates every day. On November 2nd there was an extremely brutal police attack at gate 9, there were 20 people injured and 30 workers got charged, I got 6 charges. I don’t know whether I’ll get problems with my residents permit in the future but no struggle is without risk ..."

This is going on in the Piacenza region of Emiglia Romagna, a supposed stronghold of worker co-operation.

I was of course interested to read that 'co-operative consortia' are controlling the supply of labour to TNT/IKEA in Italy, and I'm going to find out more. CICOPA (the world worker co-op federation) explicity rejects co-ops purely for the supply of labour, unless they're owned and controlled by workers for the defence of conditions and wages (e.g. freelancers, actors, sex workers) - at least partly in reaction to the experience of state-sponsored co-ops in the Soviet Union and China.

There's growing interest in the UK in co-op consortia as an organisation method for self-employed or atomised workers. I'm working with a couple of such groups  - IT, design, modelmakers. God help me.

Looking for more information, I used the internet search term 'IKEA + co-operatives' and out popped this, from IKEA's Privacy Policy page:

"Just as shopping at IKEA is a co-operative experience, IKEA makes a point of working with our customers when it comes to their privacy."

All of this just shows us why words are so important, and co-operative identity worth trying to be clear about.


 

Friday, 8 February 2013

Party games

Dave Boyle questioned the link between The Co-operative Party and Labour in a recent Guardian article. Yesterday, Gareth Thomas MP replied in robust but predictable fashion.

Boyle's main point is that:

"the real issue isn't whether the link with Labour is effective for the movement, or even for the Co-operative Group, but whether it's the only way in which the co-operative movement can be politically active and effective."

Quite.

Thomas's response, and the comments on Boyle's piece, conflate political effectiveness with the Co-operative Party Labour Party bond in a way that condescends to, and tries to marginalise, some of our most radical and effective grass roots co-operative activists - many of whom come from autonomous (4th co-operative principle) political traditions like commonwealth socialism and community activism, environmentalism and feminism, that are critical of party politics, and sometimes hostile to it.

The arguments seem to amount to 'if you're not in the party game, you're not serious (or even grown up)' or 'better inside the tent pissing out'. For example, Thomas says 'Boyle is welcome to watch from the sidelines' - so much for 11 years' highly effective activism and lobbying, then. David Griffiths comments 'There are only two independent societies that I can think of that do not support the Political side of the movement.' By 'societies', he's referring only to the Rochdale-type consumer retail societies, and ignoring the thousands of independent societies and co-operatives that make up the wider movement. By 'Political side', he means the Party. In other words, 'please pipe down, you're not relevant, there's no choice about this, and anyway we debated it last year in the movement press'.

At least Thomas and Griffiths have engaged. More often, the reaction to anyone wanting to seriously debate the Group's indirect bankrolling of Labour is thunderous silence.

Thomas says 'The Co-operative party has prioritised its relationship with the Labour party', but in reality the 'relationship' looks like an eternal and unchanging feature of the UK landscape, indifferent to logic, immune to criticism, ignorant of our rapidly warming political climate. But even immovable fixtures like Stonehenge or the protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland are subject to the weather, and one day fade away, or suddenly collapse - even as we wonder what they were for in the first place.


I'm one of the growing minority of Co-operative Party members who isn't also a supporter of Labour (although I was a member in my teens).  My experience of the Party, so far, is that it has a lot to learn about co-operation and co-operators, and many people in the party want to reconnect with the wider movement.  I'm hanging in there and learning a few things myself.

Two of the secret weapons of the co-op as a social movement for working class economic and political emancipation are, I think, its autonomy and impatience with sectarian bullshit. So maybe I'd restate Boyle's question this way:


Can the Co-operative movement afford to alienate its youngest, best and most radical activists and potential recruits by allying itself so firmly with a sectarian organisation steeped in a cretinous political culture? We do have a choice.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Co-operative Capitalism: A Straw Dog in a Paper Kennel

As part of its Think Piece series, Co-ops UK recently published a pamphlet by star Cambridge economist Noreena Hertz. It sets out a view that the current era of what Hertz calls 'Gucci Capitalism' will and should be followed by the ascendancy of 'Co-op Capitalism', which is characterised by four ideas in action:

- Community is valuable of itself
- The network has worth
- How we interact matters and
- Collaboration can trump competition.

This is interesting, because as far as I know capitalism is a system  for valorising, monetising and capitalising on human creativity, community, collaboration and networks. The nature of the beast is that the portion of peoples' work (not to mention natural resources) capital doesn't compensate for in the form of a social wage, is what it takes and transforms into profit.

To put it another way, if we all worked to our contracts and didn't donate unpaid labour to the masters of the universe by collaborating, co-operating, thinking creatively and generally behaving like human beings rather than robots, capitalism would fall over tomorrow. Hertz and those moral economists and pundits, from Will Hutton to Phillip Blond, who see co-operation as a cure for capitalism's malfunctioning - well, they've got it the wrong way round. Co-operation is both absolutely necessary for capitalism, and one of the last aspects of humanity that capital hasn't completely worked out how to colonise.

Isn't it interesting that the word 'capitalism' is back in the papers, after its twenty-odd year retreat to a cave somewhere on the tundra of the left? Only now, it's capitalism's supporters and improvers who use its name, not so much its opponents. Although usually the term isn't seen on its own, but qualified. So the main debate in the papers and blogs isn't about capitalism as such - it's about 'good' versus 'bad', 'predatory' versus 'sustainable', 'short termist' versus 'long termist', 'ethical' versus 'exploitative' capitalism. Which tends to crowd out any talk of anything else, and that's probably the point.

I don't think Co-operatives UK was completely wrong in putting the pamphlet out. These Think Pieces are part of its mandate to 'mainstream' the movement and stimulate fresh thinking (God knows, we were starved of that for a long time). Hertz is, they say, a heavyweight economist, though I don't rate her as a commentator (she was prescient on the debt crisis! Big deal!) 'Gucci' versus 'Co-op' capitalism is a prime slice of mystification pizza. But it got me thinking. It scrapes on the reef of one or two movement taboos. The co-op movement is a 'broad church' - a political home for all kinds of socialists, anarchists, millenarians, liberals, greens, feminists and displaced persons, as well as normal people; but the deal is that nobody mentions the c-word. When we really do start to take lumps out of Barclays, Tescos, Ben & Jerry's and Powergen, it will be interesting to see how our co-operative unity is tested.

To get to that point, we should worry not at all about making capitalism more co-operative, and focus minds and acts instead on making co-operatives more co-operative, so we can make them a better vehicle for meeting peoples' real and self-defined social, cultural and economic needs. The values and principles are a very powerful formula. Developed over decades and continents through trial and error, as Ed Mayo says the real movement is 2% theory and 98% practice. Hertz's pamphlet demonstrates little understanding of co-operation as a social change movement, but maybe our own is a bit perfunctory in the day-to-day. Scratch a bit below the surface of action principles like democracy, autonomy and member economic participation - get below the 'lowest common denominator' definitions of co-operative identity - and you'll find ideas and methods, not just for running half-decent capitalist enterprises, but also for understanding capitalism and the ways humanity can overcome it.

The pioneers didn't only set out to run a good shop; their stated and realistic desire was also to overturn the system of politics and economics.

You can download Noreena Hertz's pamphlet at
http://www.uk.coop/sites/default/files/Co-op%20Capitalism_0.pdf

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Dave Boyle: an afternoon with a true football fan

I was having a few beers with Dave Boyle in the Amersham Arms in New Cross, on the brilliant afternoon last month when AFC Wimbledon won promotion to the Football League.

Dave was - until last Friday - Chief Executive of Supporters Direct, the campaign for community and fan ownership of sports clubs. He was forced to resign because one of SD's main funders, the Premier League, got wind of a couple of fairly blue tweets Dave posted in the euphoric minutes after Wimbledon won the tie on penalties.

I thought they were dead funny. He hazed a few powerful enemies of the peoples' game by name, but we'd had more than three, so he got at least one of those names wrong to start off with. Pop psychologist and  pundit Raj Persaud must have wondered what he'd done to deserve an invitation to vigorous oral sex. It turned out Dave's intended was actually Raj Parker, one of the panel of three that approved the decision to take the old Wimbledon and relocate it lock stock and barrel to Milton Keynes. Unfortunately for Dave, Twitter allows such mistakes to be instantly corrected.

The Premier League didn't just get Dave's head. They've apparently decided to cut off SD's funding completely. I'm not going into the realpolitik and vindictiveness of this - it's well covered in the press and social media. Suffice to say, if Richard Scudamore of the Premier League had got snitched on for mooning the opposition out of a minibus window, he might have been in hot water - but would the game decide to close the League down? I doubt it.

Anyway, as we were watching the game via a jerky feed on Dave's laptop in the Amersham, he explained to me how promotion for the supporter-owned AFC Wimbledon - a club he helped found via an ad in the south west London press for players, after a founding meeting in a local pub - would be not just a fulfilment of one of his dreams, but would feel like a vindication of everything he's worked so hard for over the last ten years (and there can be no doubt he and the rest of the team at Supporters Direct have done a brilliant job).

When it got to penalties, Dave could barely watch. When they won, he went temporarily - and entertainingly - bonkers for a few minutes. It was infectious; I wasn't the only one in the Amersham grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly, it was one of those beautiful, sunny spring afternoons when all's right with the world.

We went our separate ways. I stayed on the train while Dave changed, to get his connection for London Bridge and then home, where he was planning to continue the celebrations with local comrades. As he got out of the carriage, he stuck his head back round the door, gave me a thumbs up, and said: "It's been emotional!"

If you're on Facebook, you can add your voice in support of Supporters Direct here