Organizing for Social Change : Worker Cooperatives as Resistance to Capitalism

Abstract: When people around the globe are increasingly confronted with the challenges of rising economic inequalities and declining democratization, often associated with the spread of globalized capitalism, it becomes difficult to defend a position of business as usual. Worker co-ops are economic associations equally owned and democratically governed by workers with the potential to contribute to economic democracy and social change. This dissertation explores how worker cooperatives, primarily in Sweden, are constructed and organized by co-operators in ways that can resist capitalism, while at the same time having to relate to capitalism as the context in which they operate. The analyzed empirical material includes an international marketing campaign promoting co-ops; qualitative material, mainly interviews, from five Swedish worker co-ops; and second-hand material on timebanks, network-based exchange services. Overall, the results show that co-operators construct worker co-ops as better for individuals and societies than capitalist-oriented organizing, which is associated with economic ideals for profit and growth and hierarchical control. In contrast, the worker co-ops organize themselves as a form of constructive resistance to capitalism by enacting social ideals such as freedom to self-govern, equal work relations through friendship and the valuing of work time, perceived to benefit society without generating profit. The co-ops’ very existence demonstrates and spreads awareness that this alternative form of organizing is viable in the here and now. However, the analysis also shows that co-ops’ resistance within capitalist market economic contexts involves risks of the reproduction of power and the compromise of ideals in order to survive. Thereby, this dissertation contributes to knowledge on the possibilities and pitfalls of organizing for social change within contexts dominated by the very power resistance is directed against.