Most Americans believe that we live in a "free" society. The United States is the land of the "free." "Freedom" is one of the most important words in this nation's political lexicon and most Americans take pride in the fact that America is a "free" society. I want to start out be examining this idea of American freedom. First I want to state that I believe that the American idea of freedom is not in fact a delusional concept. It is real. Traditional American concepts of freedom, ideas that have to do with ideas of limited, representative government, traditional ideas of freedom of religion, and press; democracy, the freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom from arbitrary state power are all valid concepts. They all have a certain degree of reality within the context of American society. They are not fictitious concepts. Americans have a right to feel pride in these freedoms.
While these freedoms are real, it is also a reality that there are aspects of American life which are lived in the antithesis of "freedom." This realm of life centers primarily within the economic sphere of work and workplace. It is characterized more by freedom's opposites, unfreedom, servitude, and submission. To initiate my discussion of this realm I will first start out by suggesting some definitions of "freedom." This is not easily done because freedom is generally not defined precisely by most people. However in spite of this, we can make some generalizations. Most people define freedom in primarily negative terms. Freedom is experienced as the lack of arbitrary oppressive restraints and limitations to one's freedom. Thus in America freedom is defined by the relative absence of governmental restraints on life, liberty, the use of property,etc. Often in the purely conservative political lexicon, freedom is simply identified as a absence of governmental power or interference in one's life.
However lets attempt to define freedom positively. One definition is that freedom is the ability of people and individuals to do what they in fact want to do independent of institutional controls. Again in the American context the primary limitations of this freedom are normally seen as coming from government the power of arbitrary religion or from cultural limitations such as racism or sexism. What is intrinsically interesting about this, however, is that the structure of the economic system or the vary structure of individual economic institutions are very seldom viewed as in any way limitations on the freedom of individuals or of people. In fact even within the political left, economic oppression is normally seen as being only about the unequal distribution of economic resources. Left liberal analysis or even socialist analysis seldom questions the unjust structure of economic institutions.
Yet this is what I believe must be done. I would argue that the real limitations of freedom in the modern world of advanced capitalism in fact comes not from the governmental realm but instead from the very nature of capitalist society itself. Before developing the theme of capitalism's restraint of freedom any further, I need to introduce some other vital concepts into the analysis. These two concepts are "power" and "community." Freedom can not be defined adequately in separation from the concepts of power and community. The freedom to act in a certain way, the freedom to do what one wishes is intrinsically related to the realities of power and community. Simply stated if one has no power one has no freedom. If the power of others prevent one from doing as one wishes than one's real freedom is restricted. Community is also deeply involved in this. First community can be viewed in its largest context as that of the national community. Seen in this way, the community by its very power relationships defines the freedom that individuals can in fact experience.
I will say a lot more about community latter. It is the relationship between power and freedom which I want to explore at this time. In spite of the very real freedoms that Americans experience as citizens of this nation, it must be acknowledged that the capitalist structure of our society has very real limitations to freedom built into it. The reality is that workers as workers within capitalist society are not in any real sense "free." Except for those born to wealth all people within capitalist society must sell their labor to either the state, non profit organizations or more commonly capitalist firms in order to live. For the vast majority of people no real alternative to working for a weekly paycheck really exists. During this time of the work day, often eight to ten hours, one is not free in any real sense. One in fact is subordinated to the economic firm to whom one is employed. One lives at the beck and call of one's supervisor, boss, or the production schedule etc. The rules of the work environment in which one is employed are not controlled by oneself or by one's fellow workers. It is controlled by a cooperate office and corporate hierarchy which generally views its employees as an expendable resource, as a factor of production.
To summarize, the work place and the overall all environment of the capitalist firm is by its very nature the antitheses of freedom for the worker. By definition it is a place of submission to authority; it is governed by rules that take little regard for the workers needs or wishes; it is the realm of un freedom. All of this of course explains many aspects of American life and particularly how Americans define freedom. Freedom in the American context is always about how one spends one's "leisure" time. It is about the power of the consumer; it is about the beautiful automobile that symbolizes one's freedom. It is about the golden years of secure retirement which is freedom; it is about one's freedom as a consumer ala Milton Friedman. It is about one's clothing styles, one's sexual life style; ie it is about every thing except work.
Another point must be added here. Freedom is almost always also defined as an individual good and not collectively or communally. It has little to do with community. Now lets look at the issue of community within the context of American capitalist society. It is often stated, I believe correctly, that community has declined as an aspect of life within this society. What does this mean? What is this "community" which has declined.?
Let me start stating that there seems to be two primary ways of defining community. One form of community is what can be called organic or
traditional community. By this I mean the traditional familial hunting and gathering, horticultural, or agrarian village communities in which the vast majorities of human beings have lived through most of human history. These small scale traditional communities in which ties of kinship, common religious values, cultural ties, common political and economic activities united people in a deep net of relationships,.this form of community scarcely exists within the United States any longer. The closest this nation has to this sort of community are the old ethnic working class communities of past generations.
However the increasing suburbanization and corporate individualization of people is increasingly erasing this sort of community from American life. What then functions as community for Americans? Church and organized religion? Religion is one of the strongest sources of "intentional" community in America. However since most church members share little of their lifes together either by ways of kinship, or in common economic or political activities; the actual communal bonds created by modern American religion are in general rather weak. The other great source of communal bonds, ie workplace friendships and relationships that Americans experience in fact comes from out of the workplace. This of course is how it should be. After all out side of the family, the workplace is the place in which most people spend the greatest amount to their waking lifes. Therefore one would expect the workplace to be the source of many of the most important human communal relationships. In fact the work place in many ways is the modern equivalent of the tradition village in which the common work and shared life of the villagers was the norm.
The real mystery here is not that the work place provides the context for the communal ties to the majority of people but the mystery lies in fact does it not do this much better than it does. Why for instance are there so few television shows such as "The Office" in which the life of work is shown as a dominant context of social life. I think the reason lies in the fact that the work place as is portrayed in "The Office" is in generally not experienced as the place on which workers experience any kind of collective power in working together. It is not the place of freedom in which workers act freely by collectively making the economic decisions that effect their lifes. Instead the work place of "The Office" is a place in which they simply must be if they are to earn a living. Work simply in this context is not about freedom but submission and arbitrary authority.
Now to the issues of Cooperativist thought. Cooperativism wishes to destroy the dictatorship of capitalist control of the workplace. It seeks to end capitalist power and replace it with worker control over the economic institutions of society. The purpose of work within the cooperativist society will be not just to receive a bi weekly paycheck. It will also be about the expression of one ability to make decisions, to express one's power and creativity through one's work. In contrast to the situation within the capitalist firm in which the surplus value of one's work goes to the capitalist or boss, in the cooperatives of the cooperative commonwealth the value of one's work will accrue to the worker himself. It will accrue to all of the workers of a firm communally. I would argue that within a cooperativist economic order real concrete power will be returned to workers as individuals, but also to workers in community. because the workplace will now be experienced as one of the primary places in which the freedom of workers is experienced. I will argue that the workplace will become the primary center for the revitalization of community in the post capitalist, cooperative commonwealth.
The American Cooperativist party opposes the dictatorial economic regime of global finance capitalism. In contrast to the dictatorial mode of capitalist corporations and capitalist dominated political structures, national cooperativists support a new civilizational order that is based on core principles of solidarity and community, economic democracy and worker self management. The cooperativist political economic revolution will not only see the development of democratic economic institutions of a cooperative commonweath, it will also see a revolutionary destruction of many of the dominant values of capitalist civilization. Thus the values of radically atomized individualism, consumerism, hedonism, and the generally powerlessness and meaninglessness of the life of many people will be transformed.
These values, ideologies and conditions of life will be replaced by an ethos of communal power and solidarity. The culturally dominant idea that the individual person's success and meaning in life is tied to his or her success in climbing the capitalist career ladder, and to increased levels of consumption will be ended. Contrary ethos of service to family, communal economic institutions, to city, to region, and to nation will become dominating values. It is quite possible that religious belief and practice will become a much stronger force in the post capitalist civilization of the cooperative commonwealth. Thus new religious communities resembling the old monastic religious orders or the radical reformation communities of the Hutterites and Shakers may become much more prevalent than they are within the hostile environment of a secular and sterile capitalism.
These are all ways in which the counter civilization of the cooperative commonweath will differ from the current regime of global finance capitalism. However before going any further we must redirect our attention back to the concrete economic basis of this new political economic order. As can already be seen the names of this new order can differ. Some of these names are Cooperative Socialism, Cooperativism, the Cooperative Commonwealth etc. The basic ideas, however, behind the concept is quite simple. Within the cooperative commonwealth the primary economic institutions of society will no longer be owned and controlled by the small but powerful economic elites of global capitalism. Instead revolutionary cooperativist movements will overthrow the current systems of capitalist domination and replace them with economic and political institutions that will be in some cases be owned but in all cases controlled by workers themselves.
At first glance this looks like the classic Marxist Leninist revolutionary scenario. However some important differences exist between historical Marxist Leninist actions and the ideals of Cooperativist thought. Marxist Leninist parties historically instead of instituting regimes of worker control have instead centralized all economic and political institutions of society under the control and domination of the one party state. Thus we have a communism in which the power of the state and party substitutes for the real concrete power of the workers. The cooperativist position on the contrary is that the primary revolutionary process will be the transition of power and ownership from capitalist elites to the workers themselves. Within the cooperative commonwealth the dominant form of property will be the worker owned and democratically managed cooperative. These firms will in most cases be run directly be workers themselves in small firms or by elected workers councils in larger firms. The mechanics of this process is discussed in other articles.
What I want to concentrate on now is on the relationship between the new economy of worker self management and values such as solidarity and community which were discussed previously. It does not take any great insight to see that modern dominating ideologies and cultural patterns such as consumerism, excessive individualism, and the deemphasis on communal solidarity are intimately connected to the maintenance and expansion of capitalist economic power. After all both consumerism and a hedonistic lifestyle creates market opportunities for capitalism firms. Individualism of course fits in very nicely with capitalism because more often than is not an individual's worth and value within capitalist systems is measured by his or her level of economic achievement within the system and by the amount and types of his or her economic consumption.
Further more ideals of group solidarity which counter the vision of the separate autonomous individual are strongly discouraged within capitalist society. After all ideals of solidarity, community, and group decision making are accurately seen as dangerous to the power of capital. Ideas and feelings of solidarity with workers or the poor could easily lead to labor union activities or more dangerous from the capitalist perspective to activities that oppose the system. Ideals of communal power or of nationalism can be used to oppose the forces of capitalist globalism. Communitarians for example might begin suggesting that economic institutions should be subordinated to community needs and not the other way around. Further more since capitalism is simply indifferent to community, it will not be supported. The isolated individual on the other hand is quite economically expensive to maintain and is also quite powerless. He or she is the ideal subject for capitalism's regime. Capitalism's assurances to the individual of economic and status awards are quite effective in severing the individual person from "excessive" ideals of communal solidarity.
Upon seeing the reasons why certain values and ideologies are promoted by capitalism and other values demoted, one can see the reasons that that values of a cooperativist social order would radically differ from those of nominative capitalist society. The revolutionary creation of a cooperativist society itself to a great degree will be based on the creation of mass ideologies that support values of communal power and solidarity. These ideologies would tend to oppose capitalist individualism and support egalitarian ideals. Of course the successful conclusion of cooperativist revolution will bring great power into the hands of ordinary workers and people. Just as importantly it will end the great power that the capitalist class has held over the heads of the people. Because people will be able to exercise real power within the work place, the work place itself will become the primary center of working class community. (Note. When thinking of the working class think of modern middle class, clerical, industrial, agrarian, etc workers. We are not talking about some romantic vision of 19th century industrial workers.)
The work places will become the centers of such communities because the work place is the place where workers in fact live most of the waking hours of their lifes. These places will become centers of community because they will no longer be centers of powerlessness as is the case under capitalism but of power, the power of workers to collectively make the economic decisions that effect their lifes. The workplaces will become places of community because these cooperatives will be under the cooperative ownership of the workers themselves. They will be places to which workers are committed and enjoy, not the present places of capitalist unfreedom to be avoided. They will become the primary centers of the new civilization of the cooperative commonwealth.
However the revolution will not stop at the work place, government will be also revolutionized. Currently government, particularly government at the local level is the purely mundane domain of technocratic decision making by business elites. By destroying the power of these elites the national cooperativist revolution will open up government at this level to the power of the workers and people. Government will no doubt be radically democratized perhaps by the development of systems of assembly democracy and other democratic innovations. To make government more accountable to the people, it is quite possible that government at the urban regional level will look much more like the democratic governing institutions of the ancient city states of Greece than it will to that of modern American cities.
A final word needs to be said about the role of religion. Religion has two aspects. One is what is often described as the vertical dimension between humanity or the individual and God. The other dimension lies in the communal relation between human beings. Most religions particularly those of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, but also of Buddhism and other religions place a strong emphasis on value systems that bind people together into community. Thus religion is by its very nature supportive of principles of human justice which if interpreted realistically is revolutionary by nature. It is the distortion and domestication of religious values that often leads religious institutions to support the unjust political economic status quo. Because of this revolutionary potential of religion, it is quite possible that religious forces will play a dominant role in the national cooperativist revolution. Once the revolutions are accomplished then religion will not doubt play the more conservative role of protecting the revolution from social forces that would undermine its communitarian values. The point of all of this is that the cooperativist revolution will certainly not be indifferent to the forces of religion in society.