Tuesday 2 March 2021

Suma origins 1975 to 1977

 Suma Wholefoods is the largest UK worker cooperative. It currently has 300 employees of which 200 are full voting members and annual sales of £70million, of which some 15% are exports to over 50 countries (Brexit permitting).

Like most worker coops, Suma is a solid, dependable business and employer. There is a respectful and deeply ethical business and employment culture. As a visitor said, 'It is immediately conspicuous how women take their space in Suma'. 
You have to work hard but the rewards are good.  Most members learn a wide range of work and business skills and do a range of jobs within the business. High wages and lots of other worker benefits such as free hot meals, big staff sales discounts, excellent sick pay and childcare benefits, are among the reasons why Suma has to grow, because very few people leave.  

Suma has not just weathered economic and business crises but grown throughout several recessions, prevailed against much bigger competitors and sprung back from business killing disasters such as a catastrophic flood and, at another time, total IT failure.

So people naturally ask 'How did this extraordinary organisation come about? How was this path to astonishing success started?'  Well it all happened so long ago in 1975 to 1977 (when it became a registered coop) that tales are half forgotten, half made up and different people remember different things. As is normal.  And those people were young and working very hard with no time or thought to preserve anything for prosperity. Like most worker coops it largely got lost over the years.

This piece however is from the founder, we think. Suma (although it didnt have that name then) was founded by two people Reg Tayler and Anna Whyatt. Reg remade contact in the early 2000s and we think wrote this piece. Anna left early on and despite major roles, Chief Executive of Southwark Council in the 1990s for example, has disappeared from public view. So it's fitting that Reg, here, gives her credit for her role in the genesis of The Steam Bicycle Company, latterly Suma.


Every story has a beginning


Reg Tayler graduated from Cambridge University in 1972 with a degree in Mathematics and Economics. It was there his interest in wholefoods, ecology, meditation and communal ventures began. His understanding of economics led him to look at alternative economic models to capitalism which could sustain a more equitable society.

Through his interest in higher consciousness and spiritual awareness he became a follower of Guru Maharaj Ji and from 1972 to 1974 lived with other followers in communal houses around the UK. He spent some time working for the Plain Grain natural food wholesaling business which provided natural foods for Maharaj Ji’s followers around London. It was in 1974 that he was asked to move to Leeds to complete the opening of a wholefood shop also called Plain Grain which was being set up by Maharaj Ji’s followers there. 

With some friends he opened the shop and started to run it, but after a disagreement (partly because of a lack of funds being provided for stock replacement) with the organisation, known then as the Divine Light Mission, he left at the end of 1974. In the same year he inherited £4,000 from his late grandfather’s estate - this was to become the required capital to set up the business.

Anna Whyatt along with some friends founded the South Headingly Food-Co-op and bought stock from Plain Grain. This is where she and Reg met. They became friends and lovers and would share ideas about co-operative working from their flat in Victoria Road.

In 1975 Reg had an inspiration – you might call it a realisation – that there should be a natural food wholesaling business in the North of England, and that he was the person to start it. 

Shortly afterwards he heard from a friend at the Plain Grain shop in Leeds, that people at On the Eighth Day (a whole food shop in Manchester) were also keen on a wholesaling operation in the North of England and that they were calling a meeting of people from wholefood shops across Northern England to discuss the options for this, in the summer of 1975. 

At the meeting in Manchester Reg offered to start a natural food wholesaling business and the people from all the shops, including 8th Day – Manchester, Alligator – York, Single Step – Lancaster, Maggie’s Farm – Durham, Down to Earth – Sheffield, agreed to support it.

At the time he was working as a van driver for Jonathan Silver, who was running a chain of high fashion menswear shops and who turned a blind eye to Reg using  on occasion the business van to collect food. The wholesaling operation started slowly as Reg had promised Jonathan he would continue to work for him until the busy Christmas period in 1975.

With the support of all the shops meaning that stock could be turned over rapidly, with supplier contacts from Reg’s time at Plain Grain giving favourable credit terms, and with a further injection of working capital from Bernard Storey (a former work colleague at Jonathan Silver Clothes), Reg was able to grow the business rapidly and soon attracted other like-minded people to help. The intention was always to set up the business as a co-operative, but they weren’t sure initially what form this should take. 

The actual name Suma came from a clothes shop in a back street near Victoria Road, Hyde Park, Leeds. It read ‘Suma SUMA’. Both Reg and Anna liked the name and she tracked down the person who ran the shop (which was about to stop trading) who was happy for them to have it. Reg believes it comes from Africa and is a Swahili word of greeting. 

The owner of the shop Anne Whitely (now Brown) had a shop previously in Tanzania. She shared the business with a friend whose husband was from Guinea. His name was Soumah (pronounced Suma in West Africa) he told her it was derived from the word - ‘welcome’ - in his country. Coincidentally SUMA meant sewing in Swahili, so the name represented ’welcome sewing’. Appropriate as they made all the clothes for the shop. After this Anne and her son moved to Leeds. She got to know some people who regularly bought material from her who had set up a health food business from their house - they liked the name, and because Anne had already registered the name, she gave them the relevant paperwork and Suma was born.

The initial sunflower logo was designed by Brian Charlesworth, who had replaced Reg as a van driver for Jonathan Silver and then himself worked at Suma for a while.

In 1976 Suma acquired a small two storey warehouse in Wharfe Street near The Calls in Leeds, next door to Beano and Wharfe St. CafĂ©. Beano was part of Suma at this stage. There’s a story about several tonnes of fruit being carried upstairs, resulting in a horrible creaking noise as the ceiling started to collapse! But luckily there were several bits of wood which were used as props and the day was saved and business continued.

In 1977 Reg ‘sold’ Suma to his seven work colleagues N.M Crabtree, E.B Godfrey, B. Charlesworth, R.G Lihou, E.A Whyatt, H.A Noyes, B. Charlesworth, who became the founder members of Triangle Wholefoods, trading as Suma. Suma had finally become a co-operative! (In fact Reg only asked for his original capital plus some interest, which was considerably less than the value of the business in 1977). By this time Reg had already paid back Bernard Storey’s loan and there was still plenty of working capital to grow the business, which is actually quite amazing in only two years or so – but everyone including Reg and Anna only took out low wages, to help the business to grow. (N.M Crabtree and R.G Lihou still work for Suma). 

Reg spent a few months at Lifespan Community near Holmfirth/Penistone and then worked on a farm owned by some friends in the Orkneys. After he lived in York for a while and gained some experience with arable farming. His intention was to form an organic farming collective – however there were difficulties finding like-minded people of the right caliber, and raising the funds to purchase a suitable farm were unsurmountable. 

He moved back to Leeds in 1978/9 and worked for Suma again for a few months. Reg was able to help Suma acquire its first truck Operating Licence, because he had held one previously whilst in London. 

Shortly afterwards he met his first wife Andrea and decided to settle down and have a ‘normal’ career and a family. He retrained as a computer programmer and had a long and successful career in developing and supporting commercial business computer applications, including systems for a variety of wholesaling and manufacturing businesses, an insolvency practitioner, a retail logistics company, and a major UK bank. He is now retired and living with his second wife Diane in a flat in Harrogate. He still takes an interest in how Suma is developing, and visits the offices in Elland from time to time. 

‘Looking back, I am very pleased that I was able to be involved in the birth of Suma, and I am even more pleased that it has grown and flourished over the years. I do now regret that I did not stick with the co-operative and help it to grow – it may have been possible to raise the capital through Suma to start an organic farming collective, which I would have loved to have happened! But it is probably for the best that I left, and made room for other people to develop their skills. I recognize that it has been a hard struggle at times to develop a workable management structure for the growing business, and I congratulate everyone who has stuck through good times and bad. I recently read a fascinating book called ’The Great Disruption’ by Paul Gilding, which is about the likely impact of climate change. One point it makes is that once the false expectations of indefinite ’economic growth’ in a finite world has been shattered by the reality that we have reached the limits of resource-hungry economic activity, then new ways of working and business ownership will need to be developed which are more equitable. I believe that Suma can have a significant part to play in demonstrating what is possible.

Triangle Wholefoods

 Our official registered name is 'Triangle Wholefoods Co-operative Limited', trading as Suma Foods. This came about at the time in 1977 that the co-op was being registered as a business. We were expanding rapidly and wanted to move into larger premises, so we found a warehouse in the village of Triangle, near Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire. It was later discovered that our newly acquired articulated lorry couldn't negotiate the narrow entrance to the yard so that move was abandoned in favour of our subsequent purchase of 46 The Calls in Leeds. Too late! Our official name had by then been registered.

Anna Whyatt

 Anna has worked in economics and industrial regeneration and in top management in the public sector both in direct implementation and in the field of policy making at local, national and European level since 1976. She has worked on major projects including Tate Modern and on the development of regional and national economies. From 1981 to 1994 she was Senior Assistant Director, Industry and Estates for Leeds City Council, and Chief Executive London Borough of Southwark, with a staff group of 14,000 and an out-turn budget of £500 million. She has acted as a consultant to a wide range of agencies including the European Commission and the Governments of Quebec and Australia. She was an adviser on employment and economic development policy from 1982 onwards to several current Ministers when in position. She is the author of Creative Capital - a keynote study of the creative industries in London and editor of Breakpoint Breakthrough (national worklife forum 2000) and 21st Century Regions (Era 1998).




Friday 23 March 2018

Some Reasons why the 1970s Wave of UK Worker Coops Faded Away and Why there is an Upsurge in the 2010s

Cooperative Development Support

In the late 1990s ICOM (the former worker cooperative federation) did a cluster analysis of location of worker coops and CDAs (cooperative development agencies) in the UK.  It was very clear that existing worker coops clustered around long standing CDAs. There were few where there had not been a CDA. With some odd exceptions eg Suma Wholefoods, the largest 70s worker coop, in Leeds and Halifax.  

It was also apparent that the loss of worker coops seemed to be higher where CDAs had disappeared previously due to loss of funding by local authorities as they lost funding from the Conservative governments of the 80s and early 90s.

Social Enterprise UK Style

But when the Blair Labour government won a landslide victory in 1997, they emphasised social enterprise. Cooperatives were deemed to be 'innefective and obsolete' by the promoters of social enterprise. They successfully lobbied the Blair administration to put all their considerable 'third sector' support into promoting social enterprise. Which meant that there was almost no cooperative development support or awareness raising on the ground. No one with any authority wanted to hear about cooperatives.

Social enterprise thought leaders of the 90s discounted democracy as part of the governance of their type of social enterprise, creating a gulf between cooperatives and UK social enterprise (unlike on the continent where social enterprise and cooperatives intertwine).  This was the case until fairly recently. 

Change in Attitude

Conservative politicians disliked social enterprise 'Blairstyle', they referred it as 'jobs for the children of labour politicians'. After 2010 and the election of a Conservative led government it was again possible to start talking about cooperatives in the UK without getting the cold shoulder from government (local and national). Cooperatives fit the politics of all major parties (for different reasons) even if they don't really understand them.

Cooperative Enterprise Hub

The coalition government didn't fund cooperative development though. That was left to the retail society coops, first United NorWest's regional C Change program (2010ish) and then the Cooperative Group's national Cooperative Enterprise Hub from 2011 until their major crisis in 2013.

All of which meant there were few worker coops forming in the 90s (with amazing exceptions e.g. Unicorn Grocery) to replace those fading away after their first twenty years of life. Most small businesses have a fairly short life and few survive their founder. Coops as Virginie Perotin of Leeds University, shows in her research, do survive longer and more often but only statistically. Most still die fairly young (like other small businesses) - especially where they don't have someone to turn to for help when they have a crisis and/or have failed to do succession planning (the majority).

Upturn: Worker Cooperation Becomes Popular Again

The upturn in worker coops currently could be linked to the Hub program directly and indirectly. Hundreds of coops were set up and revitalised by the Hub.  My coop development network, CBC, alone had nearly 300 Hub clients (of all types of coops, worker coops tended to be in the minority). I personally 'saved' quite a few worker coops thanks to Hub funding where they were in a people fix and needed a third party to come in and help unblock the emotional logjams. Such jams kill coops and their businesses and worker coops are especially vulnerable to them,  having no boss to cut through the tangle.

The (no longer a cooperative) Coop Bank continues to fund The Hive a smaller support program than the Hub managed by Cooperatives UK. Coop development practitioners report a lot of demand for assistance by groups of, often young, people trying to set up collectively organised businesses, in order to make a living, the way 1970s youth responded to their economic recession.

Tech Coops; the New Wholefoods

I think the tech coops expansion is an example of a business idea whose time is now.   In the 70s it was a popular campaign for real food that created a demand and allowed young people to make a living from wholefoods - minimally processed foods. Today software development is the equivalent. 
And it's the same junk food/real food choice.  Software developers have a terrible reputation, do the project, take the money and run, even though it doesn't work.   The market is not only huge and expanding faster than supply can keep up, but the opportunity for more people friendly suppliers is also huge.  Learning to code is easy for those who have an aptitude for it and software development is a team activity. Individual workers must cooperate with their colleagues to get the whole development job right.  Outlandish, the leading UK tech coop,  famously converted from a privately owned partnership into a worker coop to increase their team working potential. 

The new Suma

Outlandish are undoubtedly the 'Suma' of this new network. But, significantly, they have cooperated with other coops from the start. They actively help other people form tech coops to take on some of the work that Outlandish lacks capacity for/no longer wants to do. They do the more complicated stuff now and pass on the simpler jobs to newer coops to gain experience. eg Outlandish are said to be opening a university coop where students will hone their skills before taking on better paid and more difficult work either in this coop or setting up their own. 

CoTech; the Network of Tech Coops

A self supporting ecosystem of tech coops is developing.  Just as once there was a self-supporting ecosystem of wholefood coops from importers and manufacturers to distributors to retailers and caterers.  It isn't a coincidence that one of the principal advisers to this new, 30 coop strong,  CoTech network is Principle 6. sadly the sixth principle faded and was lost from the wholefood coops movement early on and was replaced by competition.  Worker coops sank or swam by themselves, and most sank.

Cooperation between Cooperatives, the solution.

CECOP/CICOPA (the European ad Global worker coops federations) have always stressed the need for cooperation between coops and building horizontal networks for successful worker coop development. The evidence is compelling. Wherever worker coops cooperate in horizontal networks, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Japan, France, they prosper and (mostly) survive the ups and downs of national politics and economics. 
The loss of so many UK worker coops since 1980 (3000 and down to 400 today) is significantly due to their inability to use Principle 6 for mutual support. Why that was the case is the stuff of another essay.

Thursday 4 January 2018

The False Choice Between Ownership and Membership. True Coops Need Both.

Ownership/Membership? Which is the Most Important in Coops?
A weird shift to emphasise member ownership and governance, and a downplaying of the importance of cooperative membership, seems to be abroad at present.  Especially amongst some US proponents of worker coops and platform coops. History tells us this is a dangerous trend that often results in the loss of cooperative capital.

Jam Today
 The highly successful Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society is a classic example of how prioritising cooperation can cooperativise even the most fiercely independent people, Scottish farmers. If it works there, it works anywhere. But as SAOS say, you have to hold the principles and the long term determination to stick with them when the dominant ideology rubbishes and ridicules those principles and encourages private, individualistic ownership.  Which in agricultural coops as anywhere, more often than not,  results in demutualisation, a curse for most farmers coops and most 'consortium' coops of small business people (eg InterFlora). When a sufficiently large cohort reach retirement age, they want the money for themselves regardless of the loss of collective benefit that ensues. 

Eternal Paradox
The struggle is always between individual benefit now and deferred collective benefit. The eternal unresolved and unresolvable human dilemma. We just have to hold the paradox unresolved and keep the balance actively and dynamically. Opting for one or the other destroys the whole. The paradox is the organisation!

More Jam Today
If the emphasis is on ownership alone, there is no loyalty and therefore no long term sustainability.  In the UK in the 19th century, producer coops (early versions of worker coops) either failed commercially or were privatised, hundreds of them, leaving a mere handful to stagger into the 20th century. The members had no collective loyalty when an investor came along offering money for their shares, picking them off one by one.

The 19th century worker investor built and owned cotton mills of Oldham, Lancashire, (which weren't cooperative societies but used the little known One Shareholder One Vote variant of a company. Still exists I'm told but no one uses it.) with individual worker ownership of shares (and fierce fighting over dividends), were lost in wholesale mass panic recession sell outs to private investors, and the entire worker owned sector disappeared in a very short time.

The same with the spun out local council bus companies of the 1980s, when Thatcher forced British councils to sell their buses and many Labour authorities sold them at big discounts to union sponsored Employee Owned companies.  In every single case staff sold their shares to investors.  The same happened in every formerly state owned business in the former USSR, countless thousands of them, where ownership shares were given to the workers. They all sold, from the Baltic to the Balkans.

None of these emphasised membership or democratic participation and often, bizarrely, barred worker owners from the board (19th century producer cooperative societies) for reasons long forgotten. But they did emphasise  and celebrate 'employee ownership' at congresses etc.

EBTs, a Sort of Solution
The buses and Baltic examples prompted Job Ownership Ltd., which became the Employee Ownership Association, to invent the Employee Benefit Trust owned company. This trust structure (copied I think from John Lewis Partnership) is controlled by external trustees and prevents the employee 'owners' selling their 'birthright' for a 'mess of pottage'. But it institutes a paternalistic culture in which the 'owners' can't be trusted and have to have the 'great and the good' trustees controlling them.

Quite at odds with cooperative self help principles and more akin to charity culture (the rich doing things to the poor). The EOA and employee ownership sector talk about employee 'voice', rather than membership rights and responsibilities as we do in worker coops.  Studies have shown this type of EO does result in significant business improvements (compared to investor ownership) but the improvements stall a few years after the Employee Buy Out. 

Cooperative Collectives
Our concept of a worker owned and controlled cooperative is quite different. And more in keeping with 21st century platform and network cooperatives.  In most of our British worker coops, we talk about worker members, not employees (which suggests a subservient role). Our members are at the same time - workers, employees (legally), managers, directors (often) and owners (much as the members of an internet based platform coop must be). 

People are Adults; Trust Them
A common criticism is 'How do you juggle all those hats? Surely its simpler to just do one or two of those roles?' but that idea comes from the dominant systems ideology which says that workers in businesses should be treated as  chidren or dehumanised resources to slot into a pre-conceived (by the 'adult' executives) structure in simple, narrow and controllable job descriptions.  But in society outside of work, humans do juggle multiple roles quite well, eg in families, friendship groups, clubs etc. Humans, in general, and worker coop members know when to prioritise particular roles, and can do that much better if there is collective training, agreement and alignment on a membership agreement or member job description. It is not a coincidence that the 'stand out' high performing worker cooperatives invest time and money in membership discussion and development.

Deferred Gratification; How To Encourage It
The important point is that engaging with your work in this complex, multi-factorial (but natural) way creates emotional engagement and loyalty to the group (by the expenditure of a lot of emotional labour) and thereby encourages participants to go for the deferred collective benefit option rather than the selfish individualistic 'jam today' option.

It's a lot cheaper than expensive employee engagement programs too, and can yield astonishing productivity and wealth creation, enabling 'that's impossible' salaries and benefits. Performance which does not fade over time.

So 'ownership' may be an easy option but it has potentially self-defeating ramifications.

I'll finish with two examples that top the argument. Both emphasised ownership and deliberately underplayed a sense of membership, except perhaps, in the second in a perverted way, a club of pirates.    United Airlines, went from majority ESOP to alienated staff striking against their own management and bankruptcy in 5 years.  And Enron, which was a 70% employee owned business but zero employee control.

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Zizek is Wrong

(written in response to a typically contrarian article by Slavoj Zizek in which he says the Left have lost the war against capitalism.)

Zizek is wrong that there is no alternative to neo liberal capitalism. And I am surprised that a self styled Marxist has such a poor understanding of the concept of revolution. When they are faced with seemingly insurmountable reactionary force, people, to obtain the needs for their existence do not lie down and die meekly. They find other ways to provide those needs outside of the established order.

The establishment attempts repeatedly to suppress those attempts until the revolutionaries find a method that bypasses the established order. When that method is found it self-reproduces exponentially, so that quantitative change flips into qualitative change, and a new economic epoch comes into existence.

As Paul Mason says. Capitalism has renewed itself as a result of the challenges of organised labour. To evade this defeat. But since the neo-liberals crushed the power of labour, technical development of capitalism has stagnated, especially in the most advanced capitalist nations. Labour productivity (the indicator of technical development) is stuck and even maybe decreasing in the UK. The first and most developed capitalist economy. Why automate when you can pay low wages to human robots?

But at the same time, the number of alternatives to capitalist organisation are proliferating. Sooner or late one of these (or more probably several will come together ) will strike it lucky.

The Rochdale Pioneers did not invent cooperatives anymore than the Douglas company invented aeroplanes. The Pioneers brought together the best ideas from previous failed coops just as the DC3 (the first modern aircraft) was an accumulation of the best bits of previous designs.

There are some truly amazing alternative solidarity economy projects developing. The entire 'underground economy' in Greece growing outside the normal fiscal economy and out of reach of the neo-liberal police of Brussels and international banking. Hundreds of youth kollectiven in Germany, unregistered collectives of young people evading bureaucratic control by the German state in their economic and social lives.

The most interesting is the Catalan Integral Cooperative and their Fair Coop projects. How to 'offgrid' your entire economic life! Something revolutionary is going to come out of these I reckon. for the original graphic.

Bullshit Jobs - Why Worker Coops are More Productive

David Graeber, the fascinating anarchist anthropologist, has described nearly 75% of jobs as 'Bullshit jobs'.   Jobs which create no value, no use and in an ideal world, wouldn't be allowed to exist. It's the 75% which is astonishing.

In a world where we are told that capitalist businesses efficiently compete with each other, cost cutting and price dropping to out compete each other, he says on the contrary, they are creating tens of millions of pointless jobs.  And the people who do them know that, because he asked them. He set up a gmail address and asked people to tell him if their job was, in their opinion, a pointless job. they did in their thousands.  Of course people do these jobs for the money but at what cost to their mental well being?  Psychologists say that for work to be engaging the worker has to have a sense of  Purpose.  Otherwise stress and depression follow. Its in the HSE management standards for work related stress as a primary cause.

Of course keeping people occupied in pointless labour stops them questioning the order of things but this isnt a Tory conspiracy as such, though some of it clearly is - drive people into work, any work at any price, even work that has to be topped up in benefits to make it survivable, is clearly what drives Ian Duncan Smith.

Graeber classified these bullshit jobs into 5 categories, all of which are a consequence of hierarchy.

Flunkies - make someone else look good, or increase their status or salary. Receptionists often no longer do any necessary work (with computerised ICT) but are deemed essential for the look of the office.   There are many other workers whose primary reason for employment is to increase the number of subordinates and thereby increase the status and salary of higher managers. 'Post' inflation (number of posts) is a recognised disease in all corporate organisations. Most of these jobs just pass information around.

Goons - are jobs only required because other people have them. Armies fall into this. Also corporate lawyers and most accountants. The arms race in marketing means that most marketing jobs are also Goon jobs.  If you don't have enough marketeers, the opposition may steal the business.

Duct Tapers - patch things up because they are broken and there is no desire to fix them.  Most HR falls into this group. If organisations really treated their workers properly then most HR would not be needed, HR as 'sweeping up' after managers have caused conflict due to uncaring behaviours.
Lots of examples of Duct Tapers just keeping broken systems going, eg IT as well as physical stuff and all sorts of broken production and administration processes.

Box Tickers - record things for higher ups because higher ups are separated from actual operations. Unnecessary reporting is endemic. Often box ticking takes up the time that could be spent doing the job properly in the first case!!  Huge elements of HR, quality control, Health and Safety, operational management and strategic management are unnecessary box ticking.  Avoiding doing the job, eg helping people work better, and more safely and effectively, but generating paperwork instead. Many strategy workers spend their entire careers knowing nothing they do will ever be enacted.
As the old farmer said 'The pig don't get any fatter by weighing it.'

Task Masters - middle managers who supervise people who dont need supervising and create new bullshit jobs to increase their own status (and that of their superiors).  e.g. a bank manager who was tasked with cutting costs and jobs but not one suggestion was enacted because that would mean a boss losing flunkies.

Worker Coops should have no Flunkies, no internally facing Goons, no Duct Tapers and no Task Masters but I've seen lots of Box Tickers!
No matter, worker coops should inherently be more productive compared to normal hierarchical organisations. If not what are you doing wrong? Why not ask Bob?

Monday 3 August 2015

The European Project; Is it 'Game Over'?

The ideal governance structure is said to be separate but co-dependent institutions of legislature, executive (civil service) and judiciary. To prevent one or the other becoming too dominant and taking over the state or organisation in their own sectarian interest..

Two major institutions have all three functions inside themselves. The Chinese Communist Party and the European Commission. We know the CCP is above and outside the law but so, it appears, is the EC.

Despite decades long struggles, the European Parliament has been unable to wrest significant legislative authority from the executive of the EC. 

Legal disputes can take 15+ years to wind their way through the European Court of Justice. A challenge (on the grounds of illegal state aid) by private business representatives to a government coop support programme in Italy in the early 1990s was not resolved until 15 years later. In the meantime local and national governments took the position that favouring cooperative specific development support was probably illegal. 

While everyone was ignoring the tax billions being paid as 'in work benefits' to low paid employees of corporations because their wages were too low to exist on. Thus inflating those corporations profits. This is clearly illegal state aid to those corporations. In short the European Union legal system doesn't work. 

The powers of commissioners are quite extraordinary. They are 'little gods' acting outside any democratic control whatsoever. Handing down their decisions to us mortals. A Greek playwright should write a satire comparing them to the squabbling deities atop Mt. Olympus.

Records show that the commission has been largely captured by corporate capital lobbyists. They outnumber other lobbyists many times over in terms of numbers and contacts. So we get the probably illegal 'in secret' negotiations on the TTIP for example. Largely in the interest of corporate capital. Other interests, i.e. 'us', cannot win this battle. Corporate capital will have its way, one way or another. Because they have the resources to fight for as long as is necessary, and we do not. We may derail TTIP only to find the commission has agreed similar rules by another route.

Originally the European project was not meant to be like this. It was designed as a three legged stool with three social partners. Organised Business (as Employers), Organised Labour and Elected Governments. The original architects hoped that like the ideal governance structure ( They were European governance scholars) , these three social partners would be sufficiently independent but co-dependent to keep the stool upright. Of course this all depended on each partner playing the social democratic game i.e. not playing to win ( the UK/USA ideal) but playing to keep the game going for all (the European ideal).

Organised Business got its act together quickly and set up industrial scale lobbying, especially the members representing corporate interests ( small businesses and public sector employers got left behind).

ETUC the European Trades Union Confederation seems to have given up the fight. They act as if the social democratic model were still the bedrock of Europe. After the 1980s and 90s when basic employee rights were harmonised across the community, ETUC has not progressed. They have no more answer to the predation of corporate financial capital across Europe than Arthur Scargill had to the death of the British coal industry. Glorious flag waving defeat or dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy?

And elected government representatives across Europe have been taken over by (neo liberal) corporate interest lobbying. Or bullied into submission to those interests like Syriza.

So one leg has withered and the other two have effectively become one. How is this stool still upright?

The power of the Commission, made up of government ( neo liberals mainly) representatives is growing not declining. They no longer feel the need to abide by agreed treaties, whether negotiating trade treaties in secret (TTIP) or negotiating with member states.

Yanis Varoufakis says he questioned the legality of the Eurogroup which was officially negotiating with Greece but in reality was dictating terms at the whim of the chairman. Officials agreed with him. It was an informal gathering of various European bureaucrats and government representatives, with no legal basis nor any formal authority to dictate terms to a member state. Because it had no constitutional status, no minutes are taken, there are no rights to know what is discussed or who is present.  

They can act in defiance of European treaties or national constitutions, as they did in relation to Greece. And because most EU states (except perhaps Germany) are as, or even more indebted, than Greece (the total UK debt - private, business, government and financial is a greater % of GDP than Greece's equivalent), they can do it to any of the eurozone states at will.

As Varoufakis says, this Eurogroup holds the power to make life hell for millions of European citizens who have no comeback whatsoever, except to escape to an alternative economic space. Which is what many Greeks are busy doing.

Now that the neo-liberal and corporate capital capture of the EU has become so clear, the question is should we still support it? Have we lost the game? Should we, like the Greeks, be building escape routes from this fiscal and legal prison being prepared for us.

(4 Jan 2018 - how things have changed! Maybe the above explains Corbyn's reticence to defend the EU)

Sunday 2 August 2015

Debt; The New Universal Weapon

Went to a very interesting talk by Spyros Marchetos a Greek professor today at Bradford's 1 in 12 club (30 years of anarchism and going strong, a brilliant institution).

The amount of debt in the world vastly exceeds the amount of real value ( as produced by the global GDP) by a huge factor.  This debt which exists as electronic information in between banks and other financial institutions can be used as a weapon against any country that steps out of line.   Because elected governments are now allowed to convert private debt ( especially losses made by banks) into public debt (which we the public have to repay).  How was this slight of hand allowed to become 'normal' practice?

Because every country is 'in debt' this can happen at any time anywhere.  The total UK debt if you total private domestic, business, financial services and government debt is far higher than Greece's debt. It could be 'called in' at any time eg when Jeremy Corbyn is elected as Prime Minister (I started watching A Very British Coup (1988) which hypothesises a Left Wing labour government winning an election in the 1990s, recently and couldn't continue, too raw to take.)

In Greece the constitution is clear that the loans imposed by the IMF are illegal and should not be repaid.  Much like Wonga were forced to write off their more irresponsible lending.  The UK has no constitution, there wouldn't even be a constitutional objection here.

Marchetos said the EU is now totally in the grip of the bankers and German bankers specifically who wield the debt weapon without any democratic control whatever.

Almost none of the 'loans' made to Greece by the IMF or Eurozone actually went to Greece. Most effectively never left Germany but Greeks are being told to pay them back.

I asked if the rise of alternative currencies and economies in Greece will be an effective defence against this debt/money weapon and he said they weren't significant. They might enable people to keep themselves alive but will not present an effective national alternative. On this I disagree because internet enabled economies are embryonic but showing great potential.

We cannot play in this capital debt game. The cards, the odds, the field is stacked against us. We have to play a different guerilla game where the B52s of the IMF and ECB cannot find us to bomb us back into submission.