Saturday, 7 February 2015

Automatic for the people: post work co-operatives

Are we seeing the end of work? We may have thought that automation had done enough by emptying factories of workers, but now the service sector too is seeing humans replaced by robots. More and more customer relations now takes place through websites or automated phone lines; basic design and preparation of documents can be done by computers, removing the need not only for secretaries but legal assistants and even architects. This is not, however, the leisure society that many had predicted - in fact, it is turning out to be a profoundly unequal society as more and more wealth flows to the owners of capital and less and less to those who rely on selling their labour. What does this mean for co-operatives in general, and worker co-ops in particular?
I don't think automation in itself is a bad thing; it relieves us of gruelling, mindless and soulless work. The problem is - as it ever was - the ownership of these new productive technologies (and let's not forget that includes software as well as hardware). Firstly, we need to get these tools financed by large numbers of small investors, along the lines of community shares; that way, the return on the investment can be distributed much more widely. Secondly, the investors should not be owners taking a profit share but supporters receiving a far rate of interest - the profit gets reinvested to support the community that depends on the business.
That community could still be workers; but as the number of workers declines relative to the output, the case for multistakeholder co-ops becomes stronger. The local community, customers and suppliers all have a valid stake, and can strengthen the accountability that makes community shares finance possible in the first place.
John Mills, writing in the Huffington Post, points out that a great deal of investment is going into the service sector in order to achieve quite modest returns based on incremental efficiency savings. He suggests that in fact, the biggest opportunity for new technology to boost productivity is in light manufacturing - small businesses making stuff using the latest plant. So why are we seeing so few workers co-ops starting up with investment in high quality plant? There are homespun cottage industries with workers but little investment, and there are community energy co-ops that have few if any workers but plenty of investment - surely they could learn from each other.
To give a practical example: expanded polystyrene is a significant part of the waste stream, and eminently recyclable. It can be ground up and bonded together in sheets for insulation, for example, using some suitable plant. And yet the nearest EPS recyclers to Somerset are in Plymouth and Salisbury. Look for a consumer recycling point, and the situation is even more ridiculous: you'd have to go to Arundel or Cornwall! So it isn't hard to spot ethical, sustainable opportunities to invest in productive plant for added value and profitability. We just have to start building entrepreneurial teams that combine the prospective workers with others in the local community.