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The Future of Worker Co-operation in the UK

Illustration by
Heather Savage
Siôn Whellens

A new and independent organisation of worker co-operatives, cooperators, and supporters of industrial democracy will be launched in 2023.

Based in the UK, it will take on the role of a sectoral federation to unite, defend, and advance the shared interest of worker-controlled and worker-owned enterprises. Beyond this, it will strengthen worker co-operative culture by mobilising co-operators and allies through industrial networks, knowledge sharing, social movement alliances, and active internationalism. Most importantly, we want to make the system of worker control and collective ownership accessible and relevant for new groups and generations of workers, refining our propositions and organising models in the process.

Why now? The reasons are partly internal to the movement. The long drift since the 1990s intensified after the demise of the last independent national federation, the Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM) in 2001. Without our own specialist federation, we’ve been unable to articulate clear and authentic messages about democracy at work, adequately respond to changes in the broader political and policy realm, or participate strategically in the wider autonomous workers’ and social justice movements. Let alone build on earlier hard-won gains. The fortunes of organised worker co-operatives have always more or less risen and fallen with those of the wider workers’ movement, so some historical and political perspective is useful to understand the present sense of urgency. 

The history of worker co-operation goes back 250 years in Europe, represented primarily through workers’ unions and worker co-operatives. The earliest worker co-operatives in the eighteenth century were a critical reaction to capitalism and the industrial revolution, particularly the violent transition from agricultural and artisanal production to the factory system.

Interview: Ashley Frawley

Your book Semiotics of Happiness offers a social history of the rise of happiness as a public policy problem. Can you outline the rise of happiness science and its main claims?

Happiness as a policy agenda has its origins in a distant past, but there was a claims-making effort that coalesced around it beginning in the 1990s, and in the UK it took off in 2003. There were some rumblings around 1998, within Blairite circles, but in 2003 someone who was very well connected took ownership of the issue, and that was a defining moment in terms of its institutionalisation. But what’s interesting and what I’ve been looking at towards the present is the way that there have been very similar discourses to the happiness agenda that preceded it. The claims that people made around happiness were, for example, that if you go into schools and teach children the correct ‘scientifically verified’ path to happiness then you will ‘inoculate’ them against future problems. Martin Seligman, for example, used that language in his 2002 book on happiness [Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment]. The self esteem movement of the 1990s made very similar claims: they called it a ‘social vaccine’. So if you go into schools and teach children the correct scientifically verified paths to self esteem then you will stop them from having future problems. In fact, one of the best critiques of the self esteem movement was published in 1998 by John P Hewitt, called The Myth of Self-Esteem and subtitled Finding Happiness and Solving Problems in America, so there are connections between these issues. What’s drawn my attention towards the present is the way that the promotion of so-called positive emotions or emotional orientations are continually set up as the causes and solutions to a wide variety of problems, so lack of self esteem was said to cause teenage pregnancy, and poor educational attainment to result when children aren’t happy at school, and now it’s about promoting mental health. 

There were many attempts to politicise happiness throughout history. It became powerful relatively recently due to a kind of convergence of cultural and social phenomena, and there was a very conscious effort to diffuse it from the United States to countries all around the world. But there’s also a deeper cultural story to be told about why we keep trying to solve problems by shoring up the individual and implying that problems are caused by weakness within individual subjectivity. It’s interesting because in each iteration, the discourse fails; it doesn’t solve the problem that it claims to solve. Poor educational attainment isn’t down to how good people feel about themselves necessarily; and all these other social problems have just been misconceptualised. But instead of thinking that maybe we've misunderstood this issue, we’ve become – or claims-makers have become – more and more pessimistic about human subjectivity, saying “We’re just so weak”. And towards the present you get more of these promises of social vaccines, which become more and more tempered, and then it’s like, “Let’s just shore up the individual against this world that’s totally beyond control”.

And of course the weakness of individual agency is setting up for the role of the expert and the technocrat to make the right policy interventions.

The role of the expert is really interesting. I went to a conference last week in London, and I was reading through the papers beforehand, and one of the authors had made this offhand reference to being at the mercy of ‘flawless authoritarians’. I thought, no, it’s not flawless authoritarians, it’s flawed authoritarians. I’ve just been thinking about this recently, the way that experts make a big spectacle of the fact that they too are flawed, like a mindfulness expert saying, “I too have trouble controlling my emotions”. It’s as if the expertise is an inhuman kind of expertise, it’s verified by something beyond science, a discovery of something ‘natural’, that we humans just have to bow down to, or even supernatural, in the case of mindfulness, because there’s this quasi-religious orientation to it. There’s also this movement now towards using technology as a stand-in for the guru or the expert, that will replace the fallibility of humanity. So yes, it sets up the experts and the technocrats, but it’s also a very technological kind of expertise – this is becoming more of a trend towards the present.

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Family Farm Succession & Community Ownership

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

How a national crisis of family-owned farms presents an opportunity for a new generation of community owners

Across the UK around 120,000 family-owned businesses are planning to retire or transfer ownership over the next few years (ONS), but two-thirds of these owners still do not have a succession plan. With commercial and policy pressure on UK land use and food production at an unprecedented level, there is a significant threat to current land use, and it is already undermining local and national food resilience through pushing our economy towards higher imports and lower employment.

New Models for Family Farm Succession, a new project from a consortium led by Stir to Action and Shared Assets, will tackle this by working with family farm owners and community food initiatives to explore how family farmland can be part of long-term efforts to create more food security in the UK, through selling or transferring to local co-operatives.

The pilot will support a new approach to succession planning by focusing on the social, cultural, and financial considerations for both family farmers and community food initiatives through a series of workshops, options reports, and new financial models for land transfer.

The pilot is an effort to transform the current financial marketplace and build more cultural awareness within the family farm market, and to also follow pioneers such as Fordhall in Shropshire and Stockwood in Worcestershire, where family farmland has been saved through thousands of community investors.

The value of family farms is clear within our national economy and food supply, and this project will focus on ensuring financial security for retiring farmers and long-term access to farm land for community food initiatives. With a new rush to acquire land for non-farming initiatives – such as carbon offsetting and private rewilding – this pilot will support the farming community to secure a future for food production in the UK.

Olivia Oldham, of project funder Farming the Future, said “It is increasingly clear that land is at the heart of the crises we face—from industrial food production and environmental degradation, to social injustice and even ill-health and wellbeing. But, if we can collectively reimagine our relationship with it, land can also be the solution. This project is an exciting exploration of what the future of our rural landscape might look like, and practical mechanisms for getting there that take care of retiring family farmers and provide new opportunities for communities to access farmland for the common good.”

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Review: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Maxwell Jeffery

Anyone familiar with either of Johann Hari’s previous two books, Chasing the Scream or Lost Connections, will be at home with the format of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. Told through a globetrotting investigative journey, a wide-ranging survey of potentially dry academic research on attention is spun into a digestible narrative. Bestseller lists abound with analgesic pop science titles addressing the various pathologies of consumer society, and for the most part they blend into one. Stolen Focus instead benefits from a skilled author who manages to weave in touches of humour throughout. 

Beyond these stylistic similarities, Stolen Focus continues to expand upon the essential theme present in Hari’s previous works. The roots of many modern afflictions are not predominantly found in personal or generational failings. Instead they lie in the systemic and environmental conditions that weigh upon ordinary people. This runs contrary to the dominant approach of placing blame on the individual, and then prescribing self-help mantras or punitive measures as solutions. In the case of our ability to pay attention, this means that our focus has in fact been stolen from us via the twelve causes outlined in the book, and those positioned to profit from them.

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Alone in a sea of marshmallows

Inez Aponte

In a letter to Joë Bousquet, the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. At the time, April 1942, there was no such thing as an ‘attention economy’. In the grip of war, attentions and economies were focused on the fulfilment of our immediate and fundamental needs for security and subsistence. 

It wasn’t until 1971 that the first rumblings of what we have come to know as the attention economy can be found in the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Herbert Simon. Observing the advance of “an information-rich world”, he noted: “What information consumes is [...] the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

It is interesting to note the opposition between the emphasis on generosity in Weil’s statement and “attention as a scarce resource” that Simon observed in the early 1970s. Though both statements indicate that attention is something of great value, what purpose this attention serves differs starkly. 

For Weil, attention is an intensely relational act, reaching out towards another human. It expresses something of the word’s etymology, originating from the Latin attendere – ‘to give heed to,’ literally ‘to stretch toward’ – and shares its root with the verbs ‘to tend’ and ‘to attend’, meaning to take care of and be present at. She seems to be speaking of attention as a form of tending to a person or an object and in doing so both acknowledging and bestowing value. In contrast, Simon’s observation signals a warning: ‘Stocks’ of attention are limited and must be allocated “efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” 

Unfortunately, it is the words of our economists rather than our philosophers that have been heeded.

Over the last two decades, in fierce competition for the dollars that our attention represents, tech entrepreneurs have been designing ever more sophisticated ways to get inside our heads and direct our clicks towards the ‘pay now’ button. With the goal of keeping us online for as long as possible, they have been tracking our behaviour, gathering data points, and predicting our next move. Some would say they know us better than we know ourselves. 

Facebook’s AI hub ingests trillion of data points every day, making six trillion behavioural predictions every second. In 2017, a leaked document, based on research quietly conducted by the social network itself, revealed how the company is able to monitor posts and photos in real time to determine when young people feel ‘stressed’, ‘defeated’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘anxious’, ‘nervous’, ‘stupid’, ‘silly’, ‘useless’, and ‘a failure’. 

Capitalising on our emotional pain or discomfort, companies use this knowledge to deliver small dopamine hits directing us from distraction to distraction until we end up in what Kate Moran and Kim Salazar, in a 2018 article, describe as “the Vortex”. “The Vortex is a user-behavior pattern that begins with a single intentional interaction followed by a series of unplanned interactions. This unplanned chain of interactions creates a sense of being “pulled” deeper into the digital space, making the user feel out of control.” 

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