Incarcerating Prafulla Chakraborty and Cooperation Ethic

Anjan Chakrabarti

“The emancipation of the working class
must be the act of the workers themselves.”
Rules of the First International

On 16th October 2011, the veteran 71-year-old trade union leader, the chief advisor of the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union, and exponent of cooperation ethic, Prafulla Chakraborty, was arrested on the trumped up charges of attempting to murder a worker of the Kanoria Jute Mill and disturbing industrial peace. He was remanded in judicial custody for seven days; since then he has been on indefinite hunger strike. My objective in writing this piece is not merely to protest his arrest which many have rightfully done, but to argue that the arrest involves something more sinister, which needs to be scanned and opposed. Specifically, underlying his arrest is an attack on cooperation ethic and the institution of the economic collective (1) which Prafulla Chakraborty has personified for the last few years, most definitely in the case of the Kanoria Jute Mill.

This arrest of Prafulla Chakraborty telescopes an attack on the idea of cooperation ethic and represents a move on part of the state-capital nexus in West Bengal to repress the possibility of its appearance among workers. As such, this arrest-attack is an assault on any possible alternative economic imagination the workers may dare to cultivate and/or experience. Among other conditions, (global) capitalism ideally also requires a docile body of workers who would not only be dependent on capitalists, but would also be unable to imagine any relation other than that of this dependency. It is not just the presence of the common that is the target of the logic of capitalism (via primitive accumulation), but more sinister is the attack on the very idea of the common, especially new institutional forms that the cooperation ethic encapsulates. A challenge to this is typically met with ferocious repression campaigns supported by well-grounded ideological apparatuses, as Maruti Udyog and Kanoria Jute Mill workers, in very different circumstances, found out; they have made their respective struggles visible by articulating their own, at times very innovative, practices of resistance. Evidently, Prafulla Chakraborty and the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union have disturbed the consensus by challenging the given order of things and its underlying presuppositions; hence the need to exorcise them. That is also the reason why anybody who shares the politics of challenging this consensus needs to understand and condemn the arrest of Prafulla Chakraborty as a political attack against the cooperation ethic and the economic collective. The point is to not to attack the state government per se, which the Union is not doing anyway (which it cannot afford to do, and is in fact not interested in), but to defend the cause of a possible alternative economy based on the cooperation ethic, in which the collective of workers is in charge of the product it creates and of the wealth that comes consequently. The cause espoused is based not on negativity, but fundamentally, on the positive constructivist terrain of freeing themselves from the clutches of anybody else.

The bone of contention is the 81 years old Kanoria Jute Mill which was re-opened in August 2011 after almost five years of closure and handed back to the old promoter-capitalist. This move was trenchantly opposed by Mr. Chakraborty and the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union. It would not be totally inappropriate to remind the readers about the plight of the workers of the Kanoria Jute Mill, which is situated in Uluberia in Hoogly. After a struggle spanning two decades, with recurrent setbacks and betrayals (both from inside and outside), facing trenchant opposition from state governments (the so-called Left as well as the Right), from mainstream political parties and from trade unions with vested interests, putting their faith in the promoter-capitalist and seeing it being dashed time and again (the mill has been closed at least eight times since 1992), the vast majority of the workers have now finally come to the understanding that they must take over and run their mill as a collective. It is a lesson they have learnt through their own bitter experience/struggle. The issue for them, at least as espoused by the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union, is not merely to own the enterprise, but to be in a decision-making capacity, especially concerning the process of appropriation and distribution of any surplus that they create.(2) Their goal is not merely to create and maintain workers’ unity, but also to produce the imagination of a creative unity based on cooperation ethic which, by default, is opposed to any dependency relation vis-à-vis the promoter-capitalists (or even the state). Whether they ultimately achieve success or they fail, it cannot undermine the strength of their belief in the virtues of the economic collective. In his capacity as adviser to the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union, Prafulla Chakraborty has been in the frontline of this ground level movement, campaigning relentlessly among the (for last five years, unemployed) workers about the virtues of cooperative ethic and its institutional form in the economic collective. Given that the initial movement, inaugurated in 1992, has fragmented into parts, claims of whether the Kanoria Jute Mill Shramik Sangrami Union has majority support often reverberates; the Union has even floated the idea of holding ballot based election among the workers to find out who the real representatives of the workers are, a move supposedly resisted by many other trade unions, some now evidently siding with the promoter-capitalist. Notably, this dedicated cultural movement trying to transform workers’ consciousness in favor of cooperation ethic, and that by taking into account the history of the movement itself in the process, has been conducted in a peaceful and dialogical manner. It is thus evident that the demand for an economic collective has risen organically from within the ranks of the workers of the Kanoria Jute Mill.

After the change in government in West Bengal in 2011, there was hope that things would take a different turn, at least in the case of the Kanoria Jute Mill. However, it seems from the initial moves on the industrial front that the new government is bent on pursuing the politics of class collaboration, which, given the existing defensive position of the workers in West Bengal (a situation to which, unfortunately, the CPI (M) led Left Front government contributed), cannot but further decrease the bargaining capacity of the workers; with their backs to the wall, the industrial workers of West Bengal are now being asked to work peacefully for/with the capitalists, and agree to whatever condition is fixed by the state-capital nexus. For example, the Labour minister retorted, “If a factory closes down, the workers are affected the most. The new government believes in negotiations to keep factory gates open. Kanoria Jute Mills will run on mutual co-operation among the owner, government and the workers. Strikes called on trivial issues will be dealt with strictly,” (The Telegraph August 23, 2011) Paradoxically, on today’s globe, that is fast turning against global capitalism, a turbulence which is engulfing the workers of our country elsewhere too, the West Bengal industrial workers are being asked to pledge a dependency relation with state-capital, which de-facto constitutes a demand for surrender. At best, there seems to be an attempt to ensure that the state represent/take the voice of workers to representatives of capital, and the autonomy of their voice stop mattering. Through class collaboration, the ruse of mediation (state/party/etc. usurping the right of workers to speak) once again seems to be reiterating itself in West Bengal.

Against this changed background, the West Bengal government went into a pact with the existing promoter-capitalist of the Kanoria Jute Mill and helped open the mill; a tiny fraction of the total workforce of over 2000 was taken into confidence in this regard and till now only 300 have been employed. A need was felt on the part of capital/state here to nip at its bud the very idea of cooperation/collective and make it seem an absurd or impractical thought. This is essential to bring the workers to the side of the constructed capital-state consensus. Because he trenchantly opposed this move along with many of the workers (the workers have even written a letter to the chief minister), Prafulla Chakraborty was arrested on the murder charge and sent to jail; notably, along with the murder charge, another pretext used was complaint filed by a promoter-capitalist for disturbing industrial peace. How can we make sense of this move other than to see it as an attempt to defeat and indeed erase the possibility of a worker run collective and re-impose the given consensus of dependency relation so that the owner-capitalist can operate freely? Perhaps it is also a signal to the workers in West Bengal in general not to think along the lines of cooperation/collective and accept the politics of class collaboration.

It is important to highlight and rebut the reasoning being used by the Labour Minister (who coming from a Left background was expected to be more sensitive to the plight of the workers) against the idea of a workers-run collective for the Kanoria Jute Mill. He asserted, “There are some leaders who want to form a cooperative to run the factory. But, closure of the New Central Jute mill that was being run by a cooperative society proved that such a society could not keep a jute mill functional for a long period. I would request these leaders to sit for a discussion instead of creating a situation that would hamper the normal functioning of the mill.” (The Statesman, 16th October 2011) He is partially correct. Indeed a collective enterprise may fail; even the Kanoria Jute Mill if run as a workers collective may fail since failure of an enterprise happens due to multiple internal and/or external reasons (these include even something as uncontrollable as product obsolescence). But other private enterprises fail too and quite regularly. The average life span of a large enterprise is 50 years and that of a medium or small one less than seven years. Even the average life expectancy of a multinational corporation – Fortune 500 or its equivalent – is 40 to 50 years.(3) Why pick up the instance of a failure of one cooperative enterprise to call the whole idea of a collective defunct. What about the current wave of instability across the globe, epitomized by rampant plant closure and labour shedding (to name a few effects) within the system of private capitalist enterprises that are turning communities, even whole nations, into wasteland? Secondly, since 1992, the Kanoria Jute mill has been closed at least eight times by this promoter-capitalist; in other words, it has failed 8 times. What about this recurrent failure? Is it the policy of the state to reward such kinds of tested failures? Thirdly, it is often argued, and the Labour Minister shares this view, that economic collectives, even if favourable on a small-scale, are inadequate for large size enterprises. This argument seems to be stuck in the warped beliefs of the 1960s and 70s. All I can do here is to refer to the cases of, to name only a few, the Mondragon Cooperative Complex (MCC) in Spain which is a federation of workers’ collectives (4), the experiments of Kibbutz in Israel (some successful, others failures), the case of our own Amul (that at least shows how a different organization system tuned to large scale production can be successful), and the recently created or taken over collectives in Latin America; some of these, such as MCC, are totally private while many others (owned and run by the workers or/at least with their active participation) depend on state for support (especially for credit). Instead of the state-capital solution undertaken for the Kanoria Jute Mill, we wonder why the state cannot, for once, take the side of workers, plan with them in detail (meticulous planning in this case is fundamental for its success), handover the mill to a cooperative run by workers, ensure the initial infusion of substantial credit (maybe, as an initial one time grant) that is indispensable for the survival of the enterprise and save a whole community from despondency and decline (for the economy of the entire area is largely dependent on the Mill). As of now, though, this route looks unlikely.

Finally, it is time for many in the Left who are opposed to cooperatives to come out of the 1970s style cliché thinking. The world has changed and is now changing faster. Across the globe, the end of Soviet style centralized planning system, the fast disappearing despotic orders, and the current destruction of social life wrought by capitalism makes it apparent that there is no alternative left for the industrial workers (and the unemployed, retirees and the community they belong to) other than to create and run their own economy. This realization is not only evident in Latin America where the influence of the cooperative movement is widespread (5), but it is now also growing rapidly across the continents including in the USA. And, with this arises the realization that this transformation cannot be enacted merely by opposing capitalism, but must include in that opposition the constructivist idea that would snap the dependency relation with capital and perhaps establish a different relation with the state. It must contain the germ of a new ethical economy it would give rise to. I know of no way this can be done other than by the creative union of workers/participants and hence the importance of cooperation ethic and the institution of economic collective. Prafulla Chakraborty believed in this opposition-construction route and it is also the reason why he was put behind bars. Let us at least realize that the injustice of this arrest is also the injustice of repressing the cooperation ethic, the institution of the economic collective and of an ethical economy based on this ethic and institutional form. The struggle for workers-run economies and the right to think of these must be asserted. It is no less urgent than the task of opposing global capitalism and its networks.

Anjan Chakrabarti is Professor of Economics, Calcutta University. He can be reached at chakanjan@hotmail.com.

Notes:

(1) By cooperation, I mean creative unity, that is, the in-common of individuals, here, the workers. In-common refers to a common which is neither you nor me, but a fusion/creation which contains you and me. Here, the mentioned unity is a creation of you and me and yet is distinct from you and me. Therefore the creative unity is a constantly reiterated outcome of thought-decision-action of otherwise free and active individuals. Importantly, this kind of unity only appears through our practice; that is, through how we exercise it rather than whether we possess it. Institution/structure created on the basis of this ethic of cooperation is what I refer to as collective. So, for example, the collective created by workers to produce goods and services with cooperation ethic is an economic collective. Evidently, given cooperation ethic, decisions concern the enterprise of economic collective must be participatory; the term exclusion here is oxymoron to the meaning of cooperation ethic of creative unity. In the usual jargon, this distinction between cooperation ethic and collective is not maintained leading to all kinds of confusion, which we try to avoid here. This distinction also highlights the need to differentiate between the types of collective; a typical state run collective which operates on principles of excluding the workers from decision making would turn out to be inconsistent with cooperation ethic and hence by that criteria is to be rejected as inappropriate. From what I understand, the Kanoria Jute Mill workers espouse a collective based on cooperation ethic. Notably, the influence and presence of economic collectives in India too has a long history, not merely among Marxists but perhaps more pervasively among Gandhians. Other figures such as Rabindranath Tagore remained a steadfast supporter of cooperation ethic. While these trends may have had differences regarding the path and content of collective, one cannot but be captivated by their commitment to it. Thus, cooperation ethic and economic collective is very much part of the critical tradition of India.

(2) It does not entail that the workers would do all the jobs themselves (especially in case of a large collective); it is recognized that a body of workers at a given time may not have the capability to perform all the tasks. Indeed, depending upon the requirement, the members of the collective, by consultation, may hand over the authority to decide on and operate certain processes inside the enterprises (technical, accounting or otherwise) to one or a group of persons deemed as experts; this partial transfer of decision-making is however neither permanent nor non-scrutinized since whatever decision may be arrived by the expert groups would be subjected to further deliberation by the workers which again is done cooperatively and whose decision-authority is final. Many other possibilities can be envisaged; just as capitalist enterprises has over the years invented and worked upon various methods of organization within its specified paradigm, so would economic collectives. Not even in the capitalist enterprise is the daily decisions done by capitalists (say, board of directors) or top management; they are delegated. However, the minimum condition of economic collective is that no policy conclusion regarding the enterprise can be arrived at without the participation/consent of workers (and maybe even including other stakeholders); moreover, the wealth created would also belong not to any group of individuals such as under capitalist enterprise but the workers as a whole. See Mondragon Cooperation Complex in Spain for an example of a one worker-one vote model that develops the organization of a large economic collective along the mentioned time. Also, see Richard Wolff, “Taking Over the Enterprise: A New Strategy For Labor and the Left” in New Labor Forum 19(1): 8-12, Winter 2010.

(3) See, ‘The Living Company’ in Bloomberg Business Week, www.businessweek.com.

(4) Founded in 1956, MCC by 2008 had around 92000 participants with one worker one vote model, profit sharing and business contact/trade spread across multiple countries. Its operations include high technology, machines, tools, auto parts, co-operative banking, an insurance company, retailing, and even a recent “Electric car/Sustainable mobility” project. MCC displays a long-term resiliency which refutes the claim that workers run collective, especially on a large scale, is a recipe for failure. Of the 103 cooperatives created between 1956-1986, only three were shut down, a remarkable survival rate of 97 per cent of three decades (Whyte, William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte, Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1988, 3). On the details of workers cooperation, see J-K, Gibson-Graham, “Enabling Ethical Economies: On Cooperativism and Class” in www.communityeconomies.org and the MCC homepage. It is notable that faced with a growing crisis that turned into an assault on the workers, the United Steelworkers (USW)—North America’s largest industrial union—and Mondragón Internacional, S.A. came to an agreement in 2009 to collaborate in establishing Mondragón-style manufacturing collectives in the United States and Canada. These collectives are to be governed by the “one worker, one vote” model of MCC.

(5) See the movie, ‘The Take’ (2004) by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein on the movement of takeover of closed factories in Argentina by workers through formation of collectives

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