Capitalist Realism, Precarity, and Co-operatives

This month on the Raymond Williams Society blog we are pleased to publish a talk Yaron Golan originally gave at this year’s RWS Conference in Manchester. He looks at the possible responses to the current crisis of capitalism and how we can move beyond the ideologies of capital by re-evaluating the modes of thinking which emerged with the co-operative movement.

Yaron writes…

Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, defines capitalist realism as an ideological framework that obscures anything that lies beyond the horizon of capitalism. It gives the impression that there is no alternative, that there is no choice between capitalism and other possibilities, that the world was always going to evolve in the direction of capitalism, and that nothing will ever evolve beyond it. Capitalist realism, then, is a closing-off of the horizon of possibilities, of our ability to imagine anything beyond what already is. It is common sense.

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And yet, capitalism is experiencing a crisis of faith; it is one so deep that former Prime Minister Theresa May felt the need to come out publicly in its defence, the action of an ideology on the backfoot. But despite capitalism appearing rattled, anything beyond capitalism still feels as unthinkable as ever. We are confronted with a paradox: the belief that capitalism is failing us is no longer a fringe opinion, yet we are still failing to imagine anything else. Capitalism is in crisis, but there is also a crisis of the imagination.

Imagination – our ability to conceive of things differently, to think up possibilities that commonly appear inconceivable – is, as Raymond Williams reminds us, largely constricted by language. Language aids in the ossification of thought into common sense and closes off the horizon of possibility. Yet language is also a means of production, as Williams so beautifully suggested, as is imagination. And, like any means of production, it can be appropriated. What I want to do in this post is to flesh out the relationship between capitalist realism, common sense, and imagination as a means of production by revisiting a movement that mounted a significant challenge to early capitalism: the emerging co-operative movement of the early 1800s. Early co-operators are interesting to us for a number of reasons:

  1. They are the first in Britain to refer to themselves as socialists.
  2. For a short period they commanded the loyalty of huge segments of the working class and thus presented a genuine threat to the dominant order – the common sense of the day.
  3. They emerged in response to widespread poverty, exploitation, precarity, automation, and displacement – conditions that bear some resemblance to our present situation.
  4. Their greatest strength was arguably a willingness to re-imagine their era’s dominant order.

And while we can never draw direct parallels between different historical periods, there are nevertheless some commonalities between their situation and ours. It was a sense of crisis that spurred these co-operators into action, and while I would never want to justify austerity and economic uncertainty, I do wish to argue that the current crisis is presenting us with an opportunity to reimagine a framework that has for a number of decades presented as natural and objectively true an extreme form of neoliberal individualism. Is there anything, therefore, in the early co-operative movement that might be of interest to us today in relation to challenging capitalism realism? I argue there is. They developed a notion of community that contains the potential for a radical social practice: community as ownership of the means of production that is imagination; community as a practice of re-imagining the world.

Few things are more productive of common sense than the idea of what is ‘natural’. One of capitalism’s most potent ideological tools has been its ability to consistently present itself as a system that reflects and facilitates natural processes and drives. To say that capitalism is natural in this sense means that it adheres to a kind of natural law, a divine wisdom, one that is non-ideological and impartial, that all phenomena can be reduced to, and that, being the expression of a natural law, is reckless to go against.

Most fundamentally, capitalism is said to be compatible with human nature, with the most dominant variant of this naturalist logic over the past 150 years being a crude, selective and reductive interpretation of a principle of natural selection, whereby free-market capitalism is perceived as a system that mirrors nature, facilitating the expression of this underlying mechanism of natural selection. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of competition and free trade were largely supported by theories derived from dominant strands of natural jurisprudence, political economy, and moral philosophy that claimed human beings were essentially self-interested. This influential discourse, within which the likes of Adam Smith and many of the day’s pre-eminent political economists articulated their ideas, and which resounds throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, was concerned with deciphering the natural laws on which society should be constructed, primarily the laws of human nature.

Early co-operators, likewise, focused on human nature as the gateway to the New Moral World. To these co-operators, the reason poverty and crime existed was that society was arranged in a way that contradicted human nature. Here, then, co-operators set out to prove that human nature was in fact sociable rather than self-interested. What exactly does sociability refer to in this sense? It’s not simply the belief that humans are social creatures – that much is a given. Rather, the doctrine of sociability asserted that all actions are reducible to a fundamental principle of sociability at the heart of human nature – a natural tendency inherent in each and every individual, and which motivates every action, even when it appears to be motivated by self-interest.

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‘Why does [a person] seek to obtain riches?’, asks an anonymous co-operator. ‘Is it for their own intrinsic value? Does the man of business […] devote all his early life to confinement and anxiety […] [so] that he may in his old age gratify his palate and encompass himself in luxury? Such […] seem the objects of his ambition, but not for themselves are they prized: it is because they draw the esteem of the world on their possessors’. [1] Such thinking embodies the ‘mechanics’ that governed co-operative thought. Mechanics understands society and individuals as made up of components (interests, ambitions, and inclinations) that can be conducted in different directions. As such, the desire for esteem is in itself neither good nor bad – it is simply an aspect of people’s sociable nature; but it can be ‘directed to produce good or evil’ [2], conducted or led down either a natural path – whereby it will lead to happiness – or misdirected along an artificial path (through competition, for example) – which leads to confusion, a misidentification of one’s interests and, ultimately, unhappiness. Effectively, this co-operator is interpreting an action as being the expression of an inner sociability, much in the same way that some eighteenth-century political economists might view the desire for goods as the expression of a fundamental law of self-interest. The co-operator says that the desire for goods is the result of a confusion – that the individual thinks they want these goods only because they have been brought up in a system that is incongruous with the true principles of human nature, but that the true motive behind this desire is in that person’s sociability, misdirected by a system of competition.

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This is a kind of mechanics of human nature. It sees humans as governed by some natural principle, inscribed into them, and interprets every action as being in some way the expression of this inner drive, implanted in them by a Supreme Being as part of Divine Providence. The same mechanical logic, I would argue, is regularly expressed in seemingly throwaway everyday utterances, but mostly in a way that expresses a view of behaviour as governed by a principle of natural selection and an evolutionist notion of selfishness. You will have come across this logic in the comments sections at the end of online articles and in the Facebook arguments that form under every post linking to a video about economics. For example, the tendency to reduce altruism to some hidden selfishness, to interpret displays of altruism as a surface-expression of some evolutionary drive to self-preservation. This ‘grid of intelligibility’, as Michel Foucault would term it, has inscribed itself into the common sense of a particular mutation of capitalist realism. To assert that genuine altruism isn’t possible in this way, is to try and reduce everything to some sort of absolute underlying motive, a hidden plan behind every action, cunningly directing it unbeknownst to the agent. This is the kind of pop-evolutionary psychology that capitalist realism is immersed in.

In this respect, co-operators didn’t escape the naturalist logic that underpins capitalism. They simply replaced it with a different type of naturalism – sociability instead of selfishness. And yet, contained within this substitution is a kernel of radical potential: an attempt to push against the boundaries of common sense and to reconfigure reality by attacking its naturalist foundations. Co-operators attacked the common sense of their time as a way of transforming the world, to which end they constructed several communities intended to act as laboratories in which to demonstrate their theories regarding human nature.

Several co-operative communities were established between the 1820s and 1840s. These were, to all intents and purposes, full-blown experiments in social change. ‘Co-operative Community’ referred to the arranging of social and economic relations in such a way that facilitated people’s sociable nature. If every human being is a priori sociable, then the path to transforming individuals – and therefore to transforming society – lay in one’s relation to others. That is to say, every individual is constituted with and through others. Furthermore, this logic extends to the production of meaning. Human beings produce meaning together, not individually. Thus, community referred to a way of acknowledging and exercising our shared production of meaning, of imagining new possibilities together. For example, co-operators challenged the institution of marriage. They attacked marriage because they believed that, much like competition, marriage was simply another apparatus of individualization that chipped away at society by dividing it into small family units, which were then arranged into a state of competition with one another. Through community, co-operators sought to extend the notion of a family to humankind as a whole, eliminating ‘single families with separate interests’ and creating ‘communities […] with one interest […] arranged as one family’.

Granted, in practice, co-operative communities were often as oppressive as they were radical. They tended to be heavily paternalistic, prescriptive and disciplinary, often aiming at reinstating nothing more than a regurgitated form of puritanical Protestant morality, imposed ‘from above’ by some of the more zealous founders of the projects who, for all their noble intentions, ultimately sought community as a means for civilizing the working classes and moulding their character. Yet the term was also always contested within the movement, and at its core we can still trace some transformative potential. Buried within the experiments of these early socialists is an understanding of the production of meaning – the production of culture – through language and imagination as an ongoing process, a mode of production inherent in the very fact of our social being, with meaning being continually reshaped by our interaction with the world and with one another. The unique potential in the activities of co-operators lies in the fact that the subversion and formation of meaning is transformed into a more ‘active’ or ‘deliberate’ activity – and one that acknowledges meaning-formation as a fundamentally social activity.

But how can any of this be put into practice today? For co-operators, a ‘Co-operative Community’ wasn’t just a practice of being-together-in-the-world – it was also, in and of itself, educational. Members of the various co-operative communities hoped that by mere dint of living and working in a co-operative arrangement, people would be transformed into co-operators. That is to say, community as a form of practical education.

For the co-operator William Thompson, people were to be transformed simply by living and working in a co-operative community which constituted: ‘a great practical school, ever efficient in enlarging the mind and harmonizing the disposition’. Thus, at the very heart of socialism we find a different definition of practicality to the kind we might commonly encounter today, where the only things acknowledged as practical are the kinds of skills that generate wealth, with wealth being very narrowly defined in purely financial terms.

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If early co-operators conceived of community as something that awakens people’s sociable nature, perhaps we can rework our definition of community to refer to that which stimulates people’s capacity for meaning-production and transforms it into something critical, participatory and collaborative. In many ways, all of us have had first-hand experience of this kind of education. Anyone who has ever been a member of a co-op, organised a union, been an activist, or joined up with other people to achieve political or social change of any form, will be aware of the fact that these experiences have re-shaped their understanding of the world. Some people term it ‘becoming politicised’, a clumsy term that nevertheless resonates.

Can co-operatives help cultivate a similar understanding of community today? Meaning, an understanding of the practice of critical and collaborative meaning-production centred around mutual-interest. The failures of capitalism and the severe cuts to local councils have opened up a window of opportunity to rethink local economies and governance. In Rochdale and Preston, exciting new initiatives are well under way to reinvent local services along co-operative lines in an effort to retain wealth within the local economy. While in Manchester, a co-operative university is being launched which could form a hotbed for what Sharon Clancy describes as ‘engaged research’ or ‘research for all’ – a form of practice-based research that puts research and theory into action, and, most crucially, engages members of the public in the creation of a shared knowledge-building process, breaking down the boundaries between knowledge-producers and knowledge-consumers. And while this is almost certainly unforgivably optimistic, it’s hard not to wonder whether an expansion of housing co-operatives and various other forms of co-ops might have the long-term effect of facilitating cultural democracy, and propagating a more radically democratic consciousness.

But for this to happen, this new wave of co-operatives needs to be more than just a temporary sticking plaster that people discard once they’re out of harm’s way. For co-operatives to be significantly effective, they must re-discover and re-fashion that radical potential at the heart of socialism, and focus on the shared production of meaning as their lifeblood. Co-operatives would need to re-discover their socialist militancy and aspire to reshape culture rather than merely act as a stabilizing agent, a neutralizer of discontent. Co-operatives are not a panacea by any means, and they can only form a part of the solution to precarity, but in the sense described here, they can play a crucial role in the long revolution.

Yaron Golan in a PhD candidate in the department of Politics, History & Philosophy at Manchester Metropolitan University. His thesis traces the genealogy of the notion of ‘Co-operative Character’ with reference to eighteenth- and ninteenth-century conceptions of self. He has an upcoming chapter on co-operative character in a book being published by Roma Tre University in 2020.

[1] An Essay in Answer to the Question, cited in Gregory Claeys, Citizens and Saints: Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British Socialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robert Owen, Book of the New Moral World, part 6, p.48. Quoted in Stephen Yeo and Eileen Yeo, ‘On the Uses of “Community”: From Owenism to the Present’, in New Views of Co-Operation, ed. Stephen Yeo (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 233.

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