Book Review: ‘Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy’

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy by Peter Ranis

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, June – July 2017 | Issue 2606 – 2607

Consider a system of organised production in which a single person (owner) or a group of people (shareholders) at the top make all the decisions and give the orders; they decide everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Below them are managers who receive and transmit the orders to a group of workers further down the pecking order who are permitted to sell their labour for just a fraction of the wages that those at the top grant themselves. This form of organisation characterises capitalism, that is, the private ownership of the means of production. It is inherently hierarchical and fosters relations of domination and subordination. It is, one might observe, totalitarian by nature.

Alternatively, consider a system of organised production in which a group of members collectively own, manage and democratically decide (via membership votes) everything from rates of wages to what is produced, how and where it is produced and where it is sold.

Furthermore, consider that managers, to the extent that they exist, are democratically elected by members and job roles are regularly rotated to ensure education and the betterment of skills for all members.

This form of organisation characterises socialism, that is, the worker ownership of the means of production. It is inherently egalitarian and, rather than sustaining relations of domination and subordination, it seeks to foster relations of co-operation and partnership based on mutual respect. It is, one might observe, democratic by nature.

That the former system prevails in our society is no law of nature. Indeed, as Peter Ranis shows in this book, the latter can and does represent a workable alternative to the dominant hierarchical structures of our prevailing modes of employment.

Presenting numerous case studies from across Europe, the US and Latin America, Ranis explores how co-operative organisations of the kind mentioned above have developed and prospered the world over in response to economic crises, global protest and the general desire of working people to emancipate themselves from the aristocracy of their employers.

By combining the work of key theorists such as Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci with that of contemporary political economists like Thomas Piketty, Josephn Stiglitz and Fred Block, Ranis provides a clear analysis of the ideas, achievements and historical context of the co-operative movement.

As he points out, the latter has always aimed to provide ‘a counter-narrative to the one that assumes only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production’. Certainly, if this book provides anything for the reader, it is just this.

A worthwhile read for anyone interested in understanding alternative, more egalitarian modes of production and employment.

Book Review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills

Reviewed by Callum Alexander Scott for Peace News, April – May 2017 | Issue 2604 – 2605

Historically there has been a general consensus across British politics and among British political commentators that the BBC is, by and large, an independent, left-leaning institution that serves the public interest. But, as readers of PN will know, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, this is a myth.

Since its inception, the BBC has overwhelmingly served the interests of the government and elite sectors in society, a fact backed up by virtually every significant scholarly study on the matter.

In this incisive new book, Tom Mills has compiled extensive historical data (from archival research, interviews, autobiographies and secondary sources) to reinforce this analysis.

Mills starts with the 1926 General Strike, when the BBC infamously sided with the government against workers. Thereafter, he explains, the BBC was indeed ‘afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent’. However, this was only ‘on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government’. As the founding director-general Lord Reith put it, the government ‘know that they can trust us not to be really impartial’.

Into the 1930s and the Second World War, Mills shows how the BBC willingly subordinated itself as an instrument of government propaganda, banning not just fascists and communists from its broadcasts, but also conscientious objectors. During this period the BBC became a ‘fully effective instrument of war’, as Reith’s successor Frederick Ogilvie stated. It was also during this period that senior BBC staff allowed MI5 to politically vet its employees (a practice that astonishingly continued until 1985). In the post-war years, Mills shows how the BBC not only distributed Cold War propaganda in ‘close cooperation’ with the government, but domestically it served to marginalise peace movements and critics of war, cancelling programmes due to government pressure and generally promoting a line favourable to established interests. The Suez Crisis, Falklands War and Gulf Wars are all explored as examples. On issues of economics, the BBC’s neoliberal shift during the 1980s is particularly interesting. Mills outlines how, following the arrival of deputy director-general John Birt in 1987, a ‘small coterie’ of radical Thatcherite reformers helped restructure the organisation, leading to a ‘remarkable growth in business and economics journalism’ and a decline in the representation of workers and their interests.

This ‘neoliberal, pro-business, right-wing’ turn, as Mills describes it, was accelerated into the 1990s and 2000s, and was plain to see in the aftermath of the 2007-08 financial crisis when elite, pro-business sources dominated reporting. Indeed, the historical record explored by Mills leads him to conclude that the BBC is ‘no more free from the powerful interests which now dominate British society than it was in the 1930s, the last time Britain was as unequal as it is today’. It’s a conclusion hard to disagree with after reading this book, especially given the way the BBC has reported on the anti-war, left-wing socialist who is currently leader of the opposition. The contemporary relevance of this book cannot be overstated. A must-read for anyone interested in British politics.

Verso, 2016; 272pp; £16.99