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Book Reviews 149

Ranis, Peter. Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy. London: Zed
Books, 2016. 171 pp. £13.29 (paperback)

As cooperative enterprises become an increasing focus of discussion, opin-


ions might largely be grouped within two broad camps: Those who dismiss the
idea of cooperatives as constituting any road toward a socialist or post-capitalist
economy and those who argue that cooperatives are a harbinger of a future
world beyond capitalism.
The arguments are not necessarily as simple as presented here and there are
a myriad of nuances within the two broad groupings suggested. This debate is
not without overlap: Cooperatives could be an important form of enterprise in a
post-capitalist economy, yet they are perfectly compatible with a capitalist econ-
omy. Building a case for cooperatives, then, requires a broader argument, one
that positions the advocacy of cooperative enterprises within a focused struggle
seeking to emancipate labor from the shackles of capitalism.
Peter Ranis enthusiastically does advance this argument, augmented by case
studies in Argentina, Cuba, and the U.S., in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront
Capitalism. Cooperatives are neither ends in themselves nor can they flourish
outside a wide movement pushing for a reconstruction of society on egalitarian
grounds. Ranis argues that what is required is a working class movement that
moves beyond wages, hours, and working conditions and into the realm of own-
ing and maintaining production with a goal of controlling local economies.
Who is the working class that would assume control of a new society’s economy
and that society’s concomitant public policy?
That working class must be defined broadly, including not only traditional
manual laborers but also professional, commercial, service, and government
employees, whom Ranis pointedly describes as “middle-class workers” and thus
members of a better-defined working class. Although middle-class workers fre-
quently differ from manual laborers in terms of educational attainment, cultural
proclivities, leisure activities, and places of work, they share the fact that they
sell their labor power in order to earn wages—they have the same relationship to
capitalists.
Overturning this basic capitalist relationship is unavoidable. Worker coop-
eratives provide a counter-narrative to prevailing ideology that assumes that
only owners and managers can provide leadership in the world of production.
Cooperatives, therefore, provide necessary examples necessary toward a
“proletarian hegemonic outcome.” In the shorter term, they also provide an
alternative to the neoliberal workplace dominated by work speedups, mass lay-
offs, stagnant wages, and precarity.
Counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-
management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural
hegemony. Seven benefits are offered as exemplifying the advantages of coopera-
tives: They bring together workers of differing outlooks and unites them in a
150 JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY

project that seeks to cure unemployment and community deterioration; they


enable participation in managing enterprises and direct democracy, and pro-
mote the learning of new skills through job rotation; technological innovation
and knowledge are shared to improve work conditions and shorten hours rather
than hoarded by management to maintain control and lay off workers; the
potentiality of building class consciousness through the creation of working class
autonomy; bigotry, discrimination, and gender biases become counter-
productive when survival requires collective engagement and continual dia-
logue; they create community solidarity and promote involvement in the com-
munity’s life as a byproduct of reliance on community support and its roots in
the local community; and because their early survival was dependent on solidar-
ity, they are more likely to support other struggles rather than see their enter-
prise in isolation.
The experiences of cooperatives, particularly in Argentina, have demon-
strated that they cannot establish themselves without community support. The
middle of the book consists of three chapters detailing the experience of Argen-
tine coops. Government and court attitudes have ranged from indifference to
hostile; some coops have had to physically defend themselves more than once.
These defenses have invariably included people from the surrounding commu-
nity and in turn the coops donate goods and services, and share expertise to other
cooperatives. The cooperatives enterprises are fully embedded in their
communities.
In something of an irony, given that the success of dozens of Argentine
coops have provided inspiration around the world, that most coops were looked
upon as temporary expedients by their organizers—the preferred route, as the
Argentine state and economy imploded at the beginning of the 21st century,
when this process took off, was a takeover by the national government with the
workers left in control. The reasons for this are not hard to discern. Coops have
faced a legal system stacked heavily against them; even with changes to the law
implemented before the neoliberal Mauricio Macri won the presidency, it is dif-
ficult for workers to be secure.
Judges have too much arbitrary power, the laws favor creditors and a fast sel-
loff of assets, and loans are difficult for cooperatives to obtain, an especially diffi-
cult hardship because in their early stages they must pay suppliers in cash.
Takeovers of enterprises were a necessity if jobs were to be saved, given the hur-
dles thrown up by the legal system and capitalists’ attempts at quick shutdowns
and asset stripping. Those that have survived provide examples of an alternative,
one that not only promotes solidarity but also leads to higher pay and safer
working conditions in addition to the gain of control over working lives. But
these constitute a minuscule portion of the Argentine economy and remain sub-
ject to the hostility of capitalists who certainly do not wish successful examples
of alternative economic relationships.
In Cuba, by contrast, cooperatives have the full support of the government;
so much so that the formation of cooperatives there are frequently a top-down
affair rather than the organic activity of enterprise members. The new
Book Reviews 151

cooperatives are so far concentrated in the services sector; manufacturing coops


remain rare. Many of these cooperatives are formed when the Cuban govern-
ment tells the employees of a state enterprise that they are now going to be a
cooperative; the reasons for this can sometimes be obscure to the participants.
The Cuban government, even if yet to issue final guidelines or even to work
out a fully formed policy, clearly is committed to the conversion of state enter-
prises to cooperatives in order to decentralize the economy. A weakness of this
process is that the bureaucratic barriers to Cubans forming a cooperative enter-
prise from scratch remain considerable. Top-down decision-making is another
weakness of this process; although there is much input and encouraged discus-
sion below, that grassroots input remains consultative. More organizing from
below is needed, Ranis argues, because neither the state sector nor private capital
can meet workers’ needs.
What of the imperial center of the world capitalist system? The author
makes an impassioned case for a rapid growth of cooperatives in the U.S. Read-
ers may find the centerpiece of his argument for the promotion of U.S. coops to
be controversial: The use of eminent domain laws by local governments to take
over enterprises and turn them over to the workers and surrounding community.
This part of the book is likely to stir debate because of the argument that the
Kelo v. New London decision by the U.S. Supreme Court provides a mechanism
for such takeovers.
The court in Kelo ruled that a plan by the city of New London, Connecticut,
to tear down a neighborhood to build a speculative complex intended to attract
shoppers and tourists was constitutionally legal. The city’s project failed, how-
ever, when a major local employer, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, did not
in fact expand there but instead moved from the area after the neighborhood’s
residents had been forced out of their homes. Nonetheless, Ranis argues that the
precedent set by this decision enables local governments to condemn enterprises
and, instead of tearing down facilities, take them over for the benefit of the com-
munity because New London’s court-approved goal was community benefit.
Whether local governments would adopt such tactics and be willing to
defend these types of takeovers in courts in the face of hostility on the part of the
targeted corporate ownerships is an open question, to put it mildly. The author
does make his argument effectively, writing that when workers occupy factories
and enterprises they are not taking something but are trying to keep something
that is already theirs, through their work. To touch on the question of ownership
and whether workers and their communities should get the rewards instead of
rootless trans-national capital questions the very foundation of capitalism.
Cooperatives clarify such relations more clearly than any other institution,
Ranis argues, concluding that “cooperatives are basic to human development
because their success depends on the emancipation of the whole worker rather
than what the erstwhile capitalist wanted of them and determined for them.” Yet
cooperatives are wholly compatible with capitalism, and the idea that a future
economy based on cooperatives will end inequality needs to be approached with
far more caution. Cooperatives competing with one another in any market
152 JOURNAL OF LABOR AND SOCIETY

economy would wind up competing on a capitalist basis, with cooperative mem-


bers having to cut their own wages (which would remain commodities) as they,
in Marx’s words, “become their own capitalists.”
Differing sizes of coops and highly differentiated sizes of industries would
lead to inequalities that would not necessarily be easy to address. Enforceable
laws, backed by inspections, would be necessary to enforce labor, equality, wage,
environmental, and other standards. There would be the question of how coops
relate to state enterprises in a post-capitalist economy. In any economy, espe-
cially in a capitalist one, coops are susceptible to becoming too big and having
non-members become employees, with attendant exploitation, of the coopera-
tive members—a problem that Mondragon is grappling with.
If a large cooperative sector were to arise within capitalism, difficulties might
arise preventing a cooperative “labor aristocracy” from developing, perhaps in
the form of a large coop in a large industry engaging with smaller enterprises in
exploitative manners. The members of such coops, should they attain dominant
status, might see a fuller implementation of socialist relations as detrimental to
their self-interest. That this has not been the case, thus far, in Argentina, where
cooperatives remain small community-oriented islands in a vast capitalist sea,
does not preclude capitalist attitudes from reasserting themselves in new forms.
Although a reader will likely find areas of disagreement, Cooperatives Confront
Capitalism overall presents a compelling argument for cooperatives as not only a
necessary example of workable alternatives to the standard capitalist enterprise
but also as a necessary component of any post-capitalist economy.

Pete Dolack has been an organizer with several groups, among them Amnesty
International, the No Spray Coalition and Trade Justice New York Metro. He
currently focuses on researching and writing about the ongoing global economic
crisis. He is the author of the book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist
Experiment, Zero Books, 2016, has been published in numerous publications,
and writes the Systemic Disorder blog. Address correspondence to Pete Dolack,
P.O. Box 220-554, Brooklyn, NY 11222, USA. E-mail: pdolack61@gmail.com
and systemicdisorder.wordpress.com

Dıaz, George T. Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande. Austin:
University of Texas Press, 2015. 255 pp. $24.95 (paperback).

Border Contraband explores how governments attempted to regulate trade


across the U.S.-Mexico border and how border people subverted regulations
through smuggling. More often than not, this smuggling entailed tariff evasion
on consumer goods. Smugglers (contrabandistas), therefore, were opportunists
exploiting state weaknesses. Additionally, border people regarded the smuggling
of many goods as licit practices. Dıaz focuses on two forms of smuggling: “low-
level contraband trade for personal consumption (petty smuggling)” and