Chapter 13: Co-operation

Outline of Marx's Discussion


Marx's discussion of co-operation in this chapter served two purposes. First, he laid out the results of his studies of the concrete nature of the capitalist organization of work. Second, he laid the groundwork for continuing his analysis of the technological changes involved in capital's relative surplus value strategy. In chapter 7 he defined work in very abstract and theoretical terms, first the labor process and then valorization. In chapter 12 he launched the discussion of the capitalist strategy of reorganizing of the labor process to increase (relative) surplus value. So, in chapter 13 he began to provide an approach to understanding the qualitative changes involved in such reorganization. Reorganization is, first of all, reorganization of co-operation.

To begin with, he emphasized that work under capitalism is collective. "Co-operation" concerns large numbers of workers brought together by the capitalist and put to work. He recognized that workers have cooperated collectively throughout history. Co-operation is not new under capitalism. What is new is the particular way in which co-operation is organized by the capitalists. This emphasis on co-operation follows from Marx's analysis of labor (and the resistance to labor) as the core of the social relations of capitalism. Although capitalists appear to be responsible for co-operation, and thus to "deserve credit" for this social development, Marx insisted on the long standing existence of co-operation. From that perspective, however responsible the capitalists may be for the particular form it takes, it remains a force outside, an autonomous force of labor itself which capital must constantly strive to domesticate to its own ends. Part of this force appears to be purely technical: the way in which co-operation results in increases in productivity (output per worker) so that the output of a large number of assembled workers is greater than the sum of the output of the same number of isolated workers. But even this "technical" aspect of co-operation will turn out to be immanently political and related to the dynamics of intra- as well as inter-class relationships.

As we have seen in the discussion on primitive accumulation, the capitalists forged a new system of co-operation on the ruins of earlier ones. At the beginning this co-operation was often indirect as many workers came to be controlled (through a putting-out system) by a single merchant capital. But over time, the conflict between such workers and that capital led the latter to gather the workers together in one place and encarcerate them in a factory where they could be observed and controlled. In these new circumstances, various kinds of struggle became much more difficult. For example, artisans who had appropriated the scraps of their raw materials (wood, silk, leather, etc.) —and cut the raw materials so as to maximize the amount of scraps— found themselves increasingly under the eye of the capitalists, or their overseers, who were diligent to eliminate such practices and thus to reduce both their own costs in raw materials and the income of the artisans. Such a reorganization —a first step in what Marx called the "real" subordination of labor to capital— was clearly not just technical but a strategy in the class struggle. So too would be all of those which have followed, right down to the present.

Scale, Authority and "Rivalry"

The growth in the scale of production meant that more and more workers were being subsumed under the command of the capitalist —a change which is initially only a quantitative one. Sometimes this just meant more workers doing the same thing. But many times, especially in manufacturing, it increasingly meant a qualitative change as more and more people worked on a set of related tasks. That "relatedness" meant the need for the co-ordination of tasks, the organization of co-operation.
All directly social or communal labor on a large scale requires, to a greater or lesser degree, a directing authority, in order to secure the harmonious co-operation of the activities of individuals, . . . A single violin player is his own conductor: an orchestra requires a separate one. (pp. 448-9)

Marx is talking here about a necessary co-ordination of co-operation inherent in "the nature of the social labor process" —an issue which he only explores within capitalism. Within capitalism, he argues, this "authority" —"the work of directing, superintending and adjusting— becomes that of capital. At this point he passes into a second aspect of the issue: the specificity of the social relations of co-operation under capitalism: class antagonism. As the scale of capitalist undertakings grew, he argued, so did the conflicts and the complexity of the issue of the organization of co-operation. "As the number of the co-operating workers increases, so too does their resistance to the domination of capital . . . " (p.449) It is this resistance, of course, which dictates the need for capital to create a whole officer corps of supervisors and overseers to make sure that the large army of workers actually do as much work as their employers desire —that the "collective power of masses" is maximized. Thus, his analysis of co-operation is two-sided and parallels his earlier analysis of work in chapter 7: first a discussion of the labor process independently of capital, second, a discussion of the specificity of the process under capitalism, i.e., within valorization.

The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function arising from the nature of the social labor process and peculiar to that process, but it is at the same time a function of the exploitation of a social labour process, and is consequently conditioned by the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the raw material of his exploitation. (p. 449)

Marx's analysis, while providing an approach to grasping technological issues in terms of antagonistic class relationships, has been seized upon as a technologically deterministic justification of hierarchical authority, not only under capitalism but under all large scale, complex systems of social co-operation, including socialism. Some of the terms and metaphors which he used, especially "directing authority" and "orchestra director" clearly lend themselves to this interpretation. This line of deterministic interpretation was given a powerful boost by Frederick Engel's piece on "Authority" published in 1873. That piece, written against anarchist slogans of abolishing authority, argued that "authority" was inherent in technology. In the case of the cotton spinning mill, he wrote, "the authority of steam . . . cares nothing for individual autonomy" and the "forces of nature" subject humans "to a veritable despotism independent of all social organization. Wanting to abolish authority in large-scale industry is tantamount to wanting to abolish industry itself, to destroy the power loom in order to return to the spinning wheel." "If," he argued, "the autonomists confined themselves to saying that the social organisation of the future would restrict authority solely to the limits within which the conditions of production render it inevitable, we could understand each other . . . " The one-sideness of this argument is striking. It totally ignores the issue of the genesis of the "conditions of production" —how the capitalist organization of production technology has been structured within the context of class antagonism in order to maximize capitalist control over the working class. He is refusing to enter into the analysis demanded by the anarchist attack on authority, namely, an investigation into how the conditions of production can be changed to eliminate authority and to replace it with democratic decision making. He fails to question why it is that in industry as he knows it "the first condition of the job is a dominant will that settles all subordinate questions". Why is production organized so that this is "the first condition"? At this point in our reading of Capital the contrast between Engels' argument and Marx's is not so obvious. Later, when we get to chapter 15, it will be much clearer. Once we read Marx's analysis of how "it would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working class revolt" we see the one-sidedness and inadequacy of Engels' argument. (p. 563)

Nevertheless, this kind of argument was taken up and elaborated by the Bolsheviks, especially by Lenin who used it to justify the overthrow of the factory committees and the soviets (which had been created during the revolution by Russian workers) and the imposition of top-down, party-state-managerial despotism. Although he professed to believe that ultimately "every cook could govern", i.e., co-ordination could occur within co-operation by the workers themselves, he called for and imposed top-down hierarchical control that tended to destroyed all bottom-up initiatives.

A second aspect of Marx's analysis of co-operation which was used for the same purpose was his notion that one source of the heightened productivity of co-operation derived from the stimulus it gave to "animal spirits".

Apart from the new power that arises from the fusion of many forces into a single force, mere social contact begets in most industries a rivalry and a stimulation of the 'animal spirits', which heightens the efficiency of each individual worker.

There are two things to say about this. First, while "rivalry" may stimulate "animal spirits", it need not be the only or even the main source of such stimulation. People who come together to act in concert (e.g., in work) can provide each other with support and positive feedback which also makes each individual more productive. Second, capital has generally promulgated "rivalry" not only to stimulate "animal spirits" (e.g., get more work) but as ameans to divide and conquer the working class. Such rivalry or competition has been fostered at the level of the shop-floor and it also characterizes capitalist organization at the inter-firm level, and even the international level. In Lenin's view such "rivalry" or competition was to be encouraged in the socialist USSR in order to generate the most work possible. In December 1917, right after the revolution of October, Lenin argued: "Far from extinguishing competition, socialism, on the contrary, for the first time creates the opportunity for employing it on a really wide and on a really mass scale . . . our task is to organize competition." "All 'communes' —factories, villages, consumers' societies, and committees of supplies— must compete with each other as practical organisers of accounting and control of labour and distribution of products." Here Lenin is calling for new forms of competition among production units —new, but not all that different from competition among capitalist firms. This competition, Lenin demanded, should be organized in such a way as to weed out those who would not work hard enough: "workers who shirk their work . . . will be put in prison . . . [elsewhere] they will be put to cleaning latrines . . . [elsewhere] they will be provided with "yellow tickets" . . . so that everyone shall keep an eye on them, as harmful persons . . . [elsewhere] one out of every ten idlers will be shot on the spot" and so on. These comments were aimed at justifying the imposition of a new work discipline by whatever means necessary. Those who must be forced to work, as he makes clear, are not only reactionary capitalists and intellectuals out to sabotage the revolution, but also those workers who had revolted, at least in part, to "lighten the burden of labor". But his method is to identify "slovenliness, carelessness, untidiness, unpunctuality, nervous haste, the inclination to substitute discussion for action, talk for work" etc with intellectuals and to call on workers, especially the party faithful, to root out such idlers and to identify and correct any such tendencies among members of their own class. In this manner, right at the beginning of Bolshevik rule, Lenin made as clear as could be that Bolshevik style socialism means more, not less, work for the working class.

Is this Marx? Or rather, are such views lineal descendents of Marx's ideas? Can the despotism of the Soviet state be traced to Marx's own views on technological necessity? I don't think so. There is nothing in his treatment of co-operation in the abstract that implies that such co-ordination could not take place within co-operation through the self-management of "associated producers". His observation that any large scale social labor process involving large numbers of people requires co-ordination seems uncontestable as far as it goes. But it doesn't go very far. The form of that co-ordination remains to be determined and in the various social situations he mentions —slave plantation economies, ancient Egypt, primitive hunting, capitalism— he makes quite clear that we can expect the form of co-ordination to vary enormously. The same is true for his very few words in this chapter on "rivalry" or competition among workers. Both his earlier work in the 1844 Manuscripts attacking the ways in which capital pits worker against worker and his later discussion in Capital, chapters 20 and 21 on how capitalists manipulate wages to encourage competition and hierarchy, suggest that in general he understood "rivalry" to be only one form of "animal spirits" and that various kinds of non-competitive but mutually stimulating interactions would characterize un-alienated, post capitalist work relations. He certainly recognized how within capitalism the mangement of co-operation has generally involved the use of competition (i.e., to divide and conquer the working class) and he hardly embraced it as an inevitable part of the production process.

Since Marx wrote we have more than 130 years of experience with a wide diversity of forms of co-operation, most of which have been elaborated within capitalism but some of which have been developed explicitly against it. Over the years, as workers have succeeded in gaining time away from waged work and capital has responded by colonizing that "free" time —the process I discussed in my commentary on Chapter 10— the institutions of that colonization have recreated many of the characteristics of the capitalist factory, including "co-operation" with its characteristic capitalist/socialist rivalry/competition. The most familiar examples are undoubtedly the school and the nation state. In school students are encouraged from a very early age to compete against each other for grades and honors —it is one of the ways they are prepared for later competition in the waged workplace. Such competition in the class room is complemented and reinforced by competition in "physical education", especially intramural sports which are almost always organized through individual or team competition. In the case of team competition the stimulation of "animal spirits" is central to the realization of the powers of "co-operation" —to the point of encouraging animosity and scorn among competitors. At the level of the school system, interscholastic competition is institutionally encouraged in sports, in music, in academic subjects and, individually among men and especially women for popularity and social status. From secondary school through the university, "school spirit" is fostered with marshal band music and pep rallies as students are pitted against students, often with violent langauage and ferocious antagonism. In the wider community, competition is fostered by everything from the fashion industry and beauty contests to soap operas and politicians. All of this, of course, lays the groundwork for the most fatal competition of all, that of patriotism which pits workers against workers on the basis of nationality, ethnicity and race. Such competition, repeatedly critiqued by those like Mark Twain and George Orwell, not only provides the pyschological basis for war but is used to spur workers on a day to day basis. This is something with which, in the 1980s and 1990s, we have become all too familiar. "International competitiveness" has become one of the major buzzwords and strategies of the day as Americans are pitted against Japanese, Europeans or Mexicans by businessmen and politicians heavily engaged in trying resolve the current crisis of class command by finding new ways to impose work.

Against such forms of capitalist co-operation through competition workers have formed their own systems of co-operation: in industry, shopfloor solidarity and unions; in schools, small group collaboration and cheating and large scale protest movements; in the community, grassroots organizations of women, gays or other self-organized movements; at the international level, peace movements against war or grass roots organizing against international competition, e.g., current continent-wide resistance to NAFTA. Sometimes such self-organization may involve the détournement or direct subversion of the institutions of capitalist co-operation, at other times it may involve the creation of counter-movements or institutions created especially for the purposes of struggle. In revolutionary moments, the working class often displays collective imagination through the creation of new approaches to the organization of co-operation, e.g., the Paris Commune in 1871, the Soviets in 1905 and 1917, the workers councils in Germany in 1918-19 and in Hungary in 1956.

The "Co-operative" Movement

Marx's insistence on the autonomy (vis à vis capital) of co-operation as a quality of human social labor was closely related to his understanding that the overthrow of capitalism by the workers would not lead to social dissolution (as capitalist fears and ideology have often warned) but to the liberation of co-operation from capitalist command. Thus, those few times when Marx spoke of labor in post-capitalist society he often refered to "associated labor" —a labor which would certainly involve new kinds of social co-operation. Marx, of course, refused to speculate on, much less design, such future forms of co-operation and focused instead on the study of how co-operation was evolving within capitalism as one aspect of the developing struggle between labor and capital.

Another who was fascinated with the phenomenon of co-operation and who also saw that it predated capitalism and would certainly post-date it, was the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. A geologist-geographer who developed political concepts at least in part out of his scientific research, Kropotkin became convinced that the history of other animals as well as that of humans was shaped by natural instincts to social co-operation. Against the vulgar Darwinist notion —so suitable to capitalist ideology— that evolution was the outcome of an endless war of all against all, Kropotkin pitted his studies of natural and human history which showed the endless variety and continuity of co-operation —what he called "mutual aid". From his scientific field experience in Siberia to his historico-political studies of Western society, Kropotkin drew myriad examples of both animal and human co-operation and argued that co-operation was the dominant reality of social life within species. Beings might hunt and kill other species, but, for the most part, their relationships among themselves were co-operative. Kropotkin spent considerable time ferreting out the underground history of bottom-up co-operation in villages and cities, among farmers and artisans, in manufacturing and industry. Like Marx, he refused to design a post-capitalist world and instead studied the trends in the present which pointed to the future.

But if Marx and Kropotkin refused to design the future, others were much less restrained. Those whom Marx called the "utopian" socialists, such as Robert Owen in England or François Marie Charles Fourier in France designed both plans and experiments on the basis of their own ideas of how co-operation could be reorganized for the benefit of workers.

Owen (1771-1858) was a businessman who developed ideas of improving productivity and the lives of workers by reorganizing both industry and private life through the creation of relatively small scale co-operative villages. He began his experiments in the yarn mills and village of New Lanark, Scotland. At the same time that he introduced modern machinery, Owen also improved the living conditions of workers by keeping wages up during depressions, by upgrading housing and sanitary arrangements, building schools, and organizing the supply of workers' commodity needs at cost. Owen believed that through education and the transformation of the whole community, inside and outside the factories, society could be improved and reorganized around democratic cooperation. Because education had to proceed democracy, however, Owen felt free to intervene directly in workers' lives, not only improving their material conditions but also monitoring their behavior —to the point of installing colored behavior indicators near each workers' position in the factory to signal the quality of their character from day to day. Later, as he worked his ideas into a systematic approach to the reorganization of society around cooperative communities, Owen became involved in a variety of experiments, the best known of which were New Harmony Village in Indiana (1824-1827) and Orbiston (1825-1827) in Lanarkshire. These and several other such experiments were organized around communal ownership of property and co-operative labor. None lasted very long and Owen's efforts to persuade business and state leaders to finance the spread of his approach failed.

Owen's innovations at his Lanark Mills soon became widely known and provided inspiration for a variety of reformers, including some very wedded to preserving the class distinctions of Old England within the new conditions of industrialization. One such was Benjamin Disreali (1804-1881) who before becoming Prime Minister of England wrote a series of romantic Tory novels lamenting the decline of the old values. These were the three "Young England" novels: Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847). In Sybil, for example, Disreali denounced the capitalist "spirit of rapacious coveteousness". Since the Reform Act of 1832, which admitted the industrial middle class to the electorate, he argued, "the altar of Mammon has blazed with triple worship. To acquire, to accumulate, to plunder each other by virtue of philosophic phrases, to propose an Utopia to consist only of WEALTH and TOIL, this has been the breathless business of enfranchised England for the last twelve years, until we are startled from our voracious strife by the wail of intolerable serfage." (p. 56) He then followed up graphic descriptions of some of the worst working class slums with a glowing portrayal of the establishment of one Mr Trafford, a very Owenite business-man.


On the banks of his native Mowe he had built a factory which was now one of the marvels of the district; one might almost say, of the country: a single room, spreading over nearly two acres, and holding more than two thousand work-people . . . the whole building was kept at a steady temperature, and little susceptible to atmospheric influence. The physical advantages of thus carrying on the whole work in one chamber are great: in the improved health of the people, the security against dangerous accidents for women and youth, and the reduced fatigue . . . But the moral advantages resulting from superior inspection and general observation are not less important: the child works under the eye of the parent, the parent under that of the superior workman; the inspector or employer at a glance can behold all. When the workpeople of Mr Trafford left his factory they were not forgotten. Deeply had he pondered on the influence of the employer on the health and content of his workpeople. He knew well that the domstic virtues are dependent on the existence of a home, and one of this first efforts had been to build a village where every family might be well lodged. . . . In every street there was a well: behind the factory were the public baths; the schools were under the direction of the perpetual curate of the church . . . In the midst of this village, surrounded by beautiful gardens, which gave an impulse to the horticulture of the community, was the house of Trafford himself, who comprehended his position too well to withdraw himself with vulgar exclusiveness from his real dependents, but recognized the baronial principle reviving in a new form, and adapted to the softer manners and more ingenious circumstances of the times.

And what was the influce of such an employer and such a system of employment on the morals and manners of the employed? Great; infinitely beneficial. . . . Proximity to the employer brings cleanliness and order, because it brings observation and encouragement. In the settlement of Trafford crime was positively unknown: and offences were very slight. . . . The men were well clad; the women had a blooming cheek; drunkenness was unknown; while the moral condition of the softer sex was proportionately elevated.

. . . Some beautiful children rushed out of a cottage and flew to Sybil, crying out, 'the queen, the queen;' one clinging to her dress, another seizing her arm, and a third, too small to struggle, pouting out its lips to be embraced.

'My subjects,' said Sybil laughing, as she greeted them all; and then they ran away to announce to others that their qeen had arrived.

Others came; beautiful and young. As Sybil and Egremont walked along, the race too tender for labour, seemed to spring out of every cottage to greet 'their queen."

(Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil, or the Two Nations, New York: Penguin Classic, 1985. Originally published in 1845.)

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), about a year younger than Owen, also got his start in business and went on to design new social institutions around co-operation in labor and society. Like Owen, Fourier's ideal new social units were small-scale villages based on co-operative principles but linked in a regional (and ultimately even global) network. Also like Owen, Fourier's plans extended beyond the workshop to the larger society where he advocated co-operation in education and even love. His utopia included not only collective work but also collective emotional and sexual linkages designed to liberate people from the frustrations he felt were inherent in the traditional family. Basing himself on a theory of desire quite different from Owen and most other utopian thinkers, Fourier's plans for reorganization sought to reshape society in order to meet and balance a well-defined list of intellectual, psychological, emotional and physical needs. Whereas Owen thought people could be reeducated to fit into a more rational social order, Fourier sought to fit the social order to eternal human desires. Unable to achieve the implementation of his ideas during his life-time, Fourier's energies were focused on their theoretical design —the imaginative working through of how social relationships might be reorganized in a non-competitive, co-operative fashion to achieve individual happiness within social harmony (which, in his view, necessarily included a considerable dose of rivalry and competitiveness). It was left to his followers to actually set up working models of his ideal communities (or "phalanxes"); at least 40 were launched, especially in America, during the 1840s, but like the Owenite experiments none lasted very long.

While Marx rejected such approaches to transcending capitalism as off-shoots of the immaturity of the proletariat in the early 19th Century, he nevertheless considered these inventive social reformers "revolutionary" in "many respects" and applauded the way they identified the class antagonisms of capitalism and provided "the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class".

Such experiments left in their wake not only a tradition of "intentional communities" but also a whole social movement which has spread an ideology and practice of "co-operation" across the face of the earth. From their origins in England and France to the U.S. and hence to the Third World, "co-operatives" have been held out as an alternative path to the dog-eat-dog competition of capitalism. Many co-operative organizations have been centered on production, e.g., peasant or farmer co-operatives where individual family farmers collaborate to share equipment and jointly market their output. Others have been centered on the sphere of reproduction, e.g., consumer co-operatives or housing co-operatives.

As in all social inventions such experiments have created new terrains of class struggle. Owenite co-operatives were often offered as reformist alternatives to getting beyond capitalism through revolution. Others have been created to generate collective strength for local as well as wider struggles against the constraints of the system. Governments have somtimes legalized bottom-up efforts, but generally they have sought to use co-operatives not to get beyond capitalism but rather to "co-opt" dissent and to diffuse gathering revolutionary energies. The history of the class struggle is, in part, a history of the struggle over the creation and utilization of new forms of co-operation.

Recommended Further Reading

Concepts for Review
    extensive scale
    Owenite village
    average social labor
    economies of scale
    increasing returns to scale
    joint consumption
    plan of work
    social productive power
    worker rivalry
    socialist competition
    humans as social animal
    faux frais
    scholastic competition
    social labor
    working class resistence
    alien will
    despotism of valorization
    int'l competitiveness
    productivity of capital
    mutual aid
    precapitalist cooperation
    mode of production

Questions For Review

(An * means one possible answer can be found at the end of the Study Guide.)

1. In what sense is co-operation the "fundamental form" of the capitalist mode of production?

2. Juxtapose and contrast capitalist co-operation with pre-capitalist co-operation, both that based on traditional community solidarity and that based on coercion.

3. How is the difference between the earliest capitalist production and pre-capitalist manufacturing "purely quantitative"?

4. What does Marx mean by the "average social labor time"? How can it be measured?

5. How does the factory or collective workshop realize increasing returns to scale for the capitalist? How does this reduce his unit costs of production?

*6. Give all the sources of the new social productive power that Marx associates with co-operation. Does the capitalist pay for this?

7. "When the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species." Comment.

8. As the capitalist assembles and puts to work increasing numbers of workers, what do those workers do? How does this involve a political recomposition of the class?

*9. Marx speaks of growing working class "resistence." How adequate a choice of words is this? Are workers always reactive?

10. What happens to the costs of supervision as workers organize and struggle? Should we see the expenses of company goons and state police as among the faux frais of production?

11. In what sense is the factory run under a "despotic plan"? If the plan is the product of a "powerful will" outside the workers which "subjects their labor to his purpose," in what sense does this involve "ALIENastion"?

*12. Apply the analysis of this chapter to schooling. In what sense is there cooperation? Supervision? Unavoidable antagonism? Working class struggle? Despotism?