Anti-Capitalist Meet-Up - Owning one's work: can workers manage themselves

Anti-Capitalist Meet-Up- Owning one's work: can workers manage themselves
Richard Wolff remains important in the continuing education of the left from the time when (for some of us), it was actually not a big deal to think of entry points and an Ideological State Apparatus.

Labor aristocracy remains the dominant feature of capitalism even as there has been resistance in the form of workers cooperatives. Could there be in the US context, more viable examples of workers’ self managing institutions, or Workers Self Directed Enterprises (WSDEs) to minimize the social divisions created by capitalism.

This has been covered by others in ACM especially on Mondragon, but it is Summer, and revisiting this is important for renewal as elections are coming, despite the usual villains. There perhaps are those who have not had occasion to cover this material and perhaps there are some who would like to augment their current state of understanding certain materialist philosophies.

As daunting as the terminology might seem it does require us to think about some basic ideas like embodied labor and living labor and the property relationships of that labor. Wolff’s video below is one of many resources essential to understand the problems of stratified labor divisions, and the exploitation of value.

Contemporary capitalism no longer “delivers the goods” (which is understood as a rising standard of real wages) to the majority of people. That classic defense of its instability (e.g. recurrent bouts of unemployment), its deepening economic, political, and cultural inequalities, and its attendant injustices is no lon­ger plausible.

At a national scale, this is what Stephen Miller and Donald Trump are doing in Europe, when they promote a coded racism in the discourse of immigration, as a dog whistle for US bigotry and social division across classes, races, genders, and sexualities. This is the actual “culture war” where the social justice warriors against diversity are those “very fine people” wearing implicit and explicit icons for hatred and supremacy.

As a piece in WaPo suggests "Trump’s lies are not a defensive response to protect a political legacy. Trump’s lies are his legacy."

But the first step should be understanding that there are some specific historical modes of production with the inevitable unevenness of development. “… because human beings have a rational interest in developing their capacities to control their interactions with external nature in order to satisfy their wants, the historical tendency is strongly toward further development of these capacities.” (Cohen)

Class struggle is made more complicated when false consciousness is enabled by a crony capitalism manipulating a labor aristocracy. Self development gets thwarted and subjugation as wage slavery can be compared in the immigration context to actual slavery as human trafficking occurs.

While living and working conditions for workers in the “global North” have deteriorated sharply since the late 1960s, the result has not been, for the most part, the growth of revolutionary consciousness. Instead we have seen reactionary ideas – racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, militarism – strengthened in a significant sector of workers in the advanced capitalist countries. Since the late 1970s, nearly one-third of U.S. voters in union households have voted for right-wing Republicans.(1)


“Obviously, out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe their labor leaders and an upper stratum of the labor aristocracy. And the capitalists of the “advanced” countries do bribe them: they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.”

Workers’ self-organization and self-activity in the workplace struggles is the starting point for creating the material and ideological conditions for an effective challenge to working class reformism and conservatism. Clearly, militant workplace struggle is not a sufficient condition for the development of radical and revolutionary consciousness among workers. Struggles in working-class communities around housing, social welfare, transport and other issues; and political struggles against racism and war are crucial elements in the political self-transformation of the working class.

Successful workplace struggles, however, are the necessary condition for the development of class consciousness. Without the experience of such struggles, workers will continue to passively accept reformist politics or, worse, embrace reactionary politics.

Understanding the struggle involves a foundational awareness of the mode of production and the productive forces and relations of production.

In Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (2012), Richard Wolff argues that global capitalism can no longer meet the needs of the world's population. He goes onto note that socialism as it has been practiced during the twentieth century cannot meet these needs either. His work is an attempt to construct a viable alternative to global capitalism, centering on Marx’s notion of surplus capital. Marx argued that one of the most salient features of capitalism was that workers produce more than what they are paid for. For instance, a worker may work eight hours a day but his labor in those eight hours may be equivalent to twelve hours labor. It is the owners and managers that appropriate this surplus labor, enrich themselves with it, and exploit the laborers in the process. What Wolff proposes as an alternative are Workers Self Directed Enterprises (WSDEs). In WSDEs, workers, who produce surplus capital, are in charge of the profit, not owners, managers or executives.


The last section of Wolff’s work is an attempt to rethink the core issue of the present; the massive inequality of wealth generated by global capitalism. Here,Wolff articulates his vision of WSDEs. He claims that only WSDEs can actually be labeled socialist because they represent the only instance in which surplus labor is appropriated by the workers themselves. Wolff does not delve into specifics, such as the amount of property that would need to be nationalized or at least held in collective control, or the degree of planning needed. His major question is the relationship between WSDE’s, other capitalist entities, and the government. Wolff gives some insights as to the relationships that may occur between these entities,,but does not speculate about interactions that cannot be known in advance. He argues that just like any social advancement, the transition to WSDEs would not be smooth or easy, and would be dictated in large part by the environment. Wolff does,however, examine the possible social structures of WSDEs and their relation to surrounding communities. WSDEs would be democratically controlled by workers,as well as the residents of the surrounding community (since the decisions made by the workers would directly affect the community). In addition, Wolff draws another distinction between producers and enablers. Producers actually create surplus,while enablers, such as lawyers or janitors, allow producers to. Producers, enablers, and members of the community all have a say in how the WSDE is run and how the surplus is divided.

The problem as it always has been is the role of institutions like banks and the dilemma of advanced technology. The interesting question is whether there could be a WSDE in Silicon Valley, or WSDE schools.

The Political Economy of Communication, Vol 1, No 2 (2013) Theorising and analysing digital labour: From global value chains to modes of production Christian Fuchs, University of Westminster

The complex network of cycles of digital labour.(Fuchs)

this is a tweet thread from the Black Socialists on Modes of Production


“It’s really only ‘do ya got it?’ or ‘do ya not have it?’

And if ya have it, you can be the employer.

And if you don’t, [then] ya can’t [be the employer].

The fact that the employer who has it didn’t produce it is a nagging problem we prefer not to ask [about].”


“The logic would be, gee, the worker added the value; [they] SHOULD GET IT!




Do you think that happens in Capitalism?

No, you don’t, do you?

We don’t give the worker the value added... EVER, in Capitalism.”


“[The Capitalist] has to rip the workers off...

[The Capitalist] has to STEAL from them part of what their labor added.


The condition of your employment is that you produce more by your labor than you get paid.

Welcome to the capitalist system.”


“The best way to describe your work in a capitalist enterprise is not that the employer gives YOU a job; it’s that you give your employer THE SURPLUS!

The ‘giver’ and the ‘getter’ are in reversed order from what the language suggests.”


“What is ‘Socialism,’ given what I’ve described here?


The workers will still come to work ... but ... the surplus?

They get that.


What is the simple American phrase that captures this?

‘Worker co-op.’

It’s very old...

You don’t need a new [theory]...”


It is time that Leftists come back to the essence of Scientific Socialism and, using the method of dialectical materialism, truly evaluate the means by which we achieve true “liberation” within the 21st century.

The revolution begins with us, and it begins in the workplace.

You can find the full lecture from Professor Wolff (@profwolff) through the “Recommended Videos” section of our official resource guide linked below:

Recommended Readings Part 1: The Introduction

Note: If you are more of a visual or audio learner, then please scroll down to see our "Recommended Videos" list. That said, a certain degree of reading will be required for you to achieve a thorough understanding of Socialism as a concept, in addition to the means by which we are to reach a Socialist/Communist society.

The following list of readings are articles or excerpts from larger works for those of you who may not feel like devoting hours out of each day to diving deep into understanding Socialism. This reading list is for people who may get the basic gist of why Capitalism is bad, but who may not be too familiar with Socialism as a theory. Much of these works deal with secondhand interpretations or explanations, so please make sure to explore more fundamental works further down below.

With these readings, you’ll have to think deeply, but maybe not as long or hard as you would have to think when reading an entire book:

Recommended Readings Part 2: The Longer Reads

If you want to call yourself a Socialist, or you already consider yourself one, then this is the list for you:

Recommended Readings Part 3: The Longest Reads

Most of these works are incredibly long and dense, so many of you probably won’t take the time to read through them, but has plenty of content that summarizes and provides analyses on much of what is shared here, and it also provides key excerpts.

These are works that are considered essential readings for understanding the foundation upon which we base our socialist theory and/or understanding today, in conjunction with historical records (in other words: this is some OG sh!t):

Workers’ self-management is more significant in other nations of which Spain’s Mondragon is a good example.

An economic system consisting of self-managed enterprises is sometimes referred to as a participatory economy, self-managed economy or cooperative economy. This economic model is a major version of market socialism and decentralized planned economy, stemming from the notion that people should be able to participate in making the decisions that affect their well-being. The major proponents of self-managed market socialism in the 20th century include the economists Benjamin Ward, Jaroslav Vanek and Branko Horvat.[5] The Ward-Vanek model of self-management involves the diffusion of entrepreneurial roles amongst all the partners of the enterprise.

Branko Horvat notes that participation is not simply more desirable but also more economically viable than traditional hierarchical and authoritarian management as demonstrated by econometric measurements, which indicate an increase in efficiency with greater participation in decision-making. According to Horvat, these developments are moving the world toward a self-governing socialistic mode of organization.[6]

In the economic theory of self-management, workers are no longer employees but partners in the administration of their enterprise. Management theories in favor of greater self-management and self-directed activity cite the importance of autonomy for productivity in the firm, and economists in favor of self-management argue that cooperatives are more efficient than centrally-managed firms because every worker receives a portion of the profit, thereby directly tying their productivity to their level of compensation.

Perhaps the best that can occur considering the entrenched hegemony of pre-capitalist organization of universities and its constant attempt to make schools into factories, is an Online Unversity of the Left.

A mode of production combines productive forces and relations of production.


mode of production (in German: Produktionsweise, meaning "the way of producing") is a specific combination of the following:

  • Productive forces: these include human labour power and means of production (e.g. tools, productive machinery, commercial and industrial buildings, other infrastructure, technical knowledge, materials, plants, animals and exploitable land).
  • Social and technical relations of production: these include the property, power and control relations governing society's productive assets (often codified in law), cooperative work relations and forms of association, relations between people and the objects of their work and the relations between social classes.

By performing social surplus labour in a specific system of property relations, the labouring classes constantly reproduce the foundations of the social order. A mode of production normally shapes the mode of distribution, circulation and consumption and is regulated by the state.

New productive forces will cause conflict in the current mode of production. When conflict arises, the modes of production can evolve within the current structure or cause a complete breakdown.

CFFig1_1_.jpg… The Political Economy of Communication, Vol 1, No 2 (2013) Theorising and analysing digital labour: From global value chains to modes of production Christian Fuchs, University of Westminster


10 users have voted.


The Aspie Corner's picture

Only problem is they don't exist where I live in Flawer'Duh. If I could start one, I would. Sadly I don't have the capital necessary to do so.

6 users have voted.

Modern education is little more than toeing the line for the capitalist pigs.

Guerrilla Liberalism won't liberate the US or the world from the iron fist of capital.

@The Aspie Corner the employees buying the business from the owner(s), whether it is privately or publicly owned.

Workers are apparently not willing or able to pool their funds to buy or create co-ops.

5 users have voted.


Hawkfish's picture

@The Aspie Corner

One problem is that state provided corporate structures are not useful (I wonder why...). For example, here in Washington we have the “T-Corp” for worker coops ( as opposed to C- and S-corps and LLCs) that suffer from the founders equity problem. In Mondragon they solved this by taking the accumulated capital of out of the business as pension investments in the coop bank, but in the T- Corp you have to leave the capital in the business. This makes it impossible for the company to grow by attracting new workers after some time has gone by because no one can buy in.

When I set up such a business about 20 years ago, we got around this by making an S-Corp with custom bylaws. It cost about $1k back then, but it may be more now (and I’m sure FL has its own special issues). But that is how to go about it IMHO.

6 users have voted.

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.
- Greta Thunberg

GreyWolf's picture

@Hawkfish of your first-hand experiences. You said you're in Washington [state?]

I hear there are a few states that are more co-op friendly, like CA or VT ...
Here in SC the S-Corp with custom bylaws would be the route I would select, but I was contemplating using another state ...

6 users have voted.
Hawkfish's picture


So I don’t remember much. But we required all workers (we only got up to three) to be equal shareholders and paid out all earnings every year. But unfortunately I don’t even have the bylaws any more.

2 users have voted.

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.
- Greta Thunberg

annieli's picture

that is the problem, although it does suggest that more effort needs to be put into how under neoliberal capitalism, entrepreneurship can be more inclusive of co-ops

6 users have voted.


GreyWolf's picture

thanks for all this info

5 users have voted.
Lookout's picture

and something people with investment money can create. Sadly most folks in the US can't afford a $500 expense. However if people can jump into the gig economy...seems they could jump into a coop economy. I know Dr. Wolff's org helps with grants and legal work. It takes some motivation and a lot of dedication to swim up stream rather than just following the path they create to the part-time wal-mart greeter, stocker, cashier non-career. We live in the new world of slavery tied by the chains of debt and enforced with lives in private prison....breathe the freedom of capitalism.

10 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Hawkfish's picture


They provide both capital and (if necessary) business plans. To bootstrap the process you need some of both from the original companies. But as you say most people’s can’t afford the startup costs.

4 users have voted.

We can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.
- Greta Thunberg

Lookout's picture

They weathered the 2008 collapse well.

I see there is a national coop bank that assists coop start-ups.

Thanks for the tip!

2 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

co-op firms. I now buy my flours from Bobs Red Mill. He was an owner who cared more about his workers than cashing out for big-bucks.

11 users have voted.

chuck utzman

TULSI 2020

divineorder's picture

3 users have voted.

A truth of the nuclear age/climate change: we can no longer have endless war and survive on this planet. Oh sh*t.