September 8, 2013

Worker Self-management in Jackson, Mississippi

By Ajamu Nangwaya
SolidarityEconomy.net via Rabble.Ca
 (Read this article's footnotes and more on the Online University of the Left )

Chokwe Lumumba, Mayor of Jackson, MS

















Ajamu Nangwaya participated in the recent Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013, speaking about the potential for worker self-management in the City of Jackson, Mississippi, following the historic election Chokwe Lumumba as mayor. This article, Part 1 of 2, is based on Ajamu Nangwaya’s presentation to the conference, and is part of our ongoing focus on labour and workers’ issues [8] this week on rabble.ca. 

Sept 3, 2013 – “We have to make sure that economically we’re free, and part of that is the whole idea of economic democracy. We have to deal with more cooperative thinking and more involvement of people in the control of businesses, as opposed to just the big money changers, or the big CEOs and the big multinational corporations, the big capitalist corporations which generally control here in Mississippi.” [1] – Chokwe Lumumba 

"Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children." – Amilcar Cabral [2] 

I am happy to be a participant at the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy 2013 and to be in the presence of worker cooperators, advocates of labour or worker self-management [9] and comrades who are here to learn about and/or share your thoughts on the idea of workplace democracy and workers exercising control over capital. 

Worker self-management or the practice of workers controlling, managing and exercising stewardship over the productive resources in the workplace has been with us since the 19th century. Workers’ control of the workplace developed as a reaction to the exacting and exploitative working condition of labour brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Many workers saw the emancipation of labour emerging from their power over the way that work was organized and the fruit of their labour got distributed. 

I believe we are living in a period that has the potential for profound economic, social and political transformation from below. It might not seem that way when we look at the way that capitalism, racism and the patriarchy have combined to make their domination appear inevitable and unchallenged. But as long as we have vision and are willing to put in the work, we shall not perish. We shall win! 

On June 4, 2013, the people of the City of Jackson, Mississippi, elected Chokwe Lumumba, a human rights lawyer and an advocate of the right to self-determination of Afrikans in the United States, as their mayor. That is a very significant political development. But that is not the most momentous thing about the election of Chokwe Lumumba. The most noteworthy element of Lumumba’s ascension to the mayoral position is his commitment to economic democracy, "more cooperative thinking" and facilitating economic and social justice with and for the people of Jackson. 

The challenge posed to us by this historical moment is the role that each of you will play in ensuring a robust programme of worker cooperative formation and cooperative economics in Jackson. We ought to work with the Jackson People’s Assembly, the Malcolm Grassroots Movement and other progressive forces to transform the city of Jackson into America’s own Mondragon [10]. It could have one possible exception. Jackson could become an evangelical force that is committed to spreading labour self-management and the social economy across the South and the rest of this society. 

The promotion of the social economy and labour self-management could engage and attract Frantz Fanon’s "wretched of the earth" [11] onto the stage of history as central actors in the drama of their own emancipation. By promoting the social economy/labour self-management and participatory democracy by civil society forces and structures (the assemblies), Chokwe and the social movement organizations in Jackson are privileging or heeding Cabral’s above-cited assertion that the people are not merely fighting for ideas. They need to see meaningful change in their material condition. The development of a people controlled and participatory democratic economic infrastructure in Jackson would give concrete form to their material aspirations. 

Amilcar Cabral was a revolutionary [12] from Guinea-Bissau in West Afrika whose approach to organizing and politically mobilizing the people could provide insights and direction to our movement-building work. In order to build social movements with the capacity to carry out the task of social emancipation, we need to organize around the material needs of the people. The very projects and programmes that we organize with the people should be informed by transformative values; a prefiguring of what will be obtained in the emancipated societies of tomorrow. 

As an anarchist, I am not a person who is hopeful or excited by initiatives coming out of the state or elected political actors. More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labour self-management. 

Based on the thrust of The Jackson Plan [13], which calls for the maintenance of autonomous, deliberative and collective decision-making people’s assemblies and the commitment to organizing a self-managed social economy [3], which would challenge the hegemony or domination of the capitalist sector, I see an opening for something transformative to emerge in Jackson. As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision. 

Primary imperatives or assumptions
There are four critical imperatives or assumptions that should guide the movement toward labour self-management and the social economy in Jackson. They are as follow: 

1. Build the capacity of civil society
We should put the necessary resources into building the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude needed by the people to exercise control over their lives and institutions. In the struggle for the new society, we require independent, counterhegemonic organizational spaces from which to struggle against the dominant economic, social and political structures.
In any labour self-management and social economy project in Jackson, we must develop autonomous, civil-society-based supportive organizations and structures that will be able to survive the departure of the Lumumba administration. If the social economy initiatives are going to operate independently of the state, they will need the means to do so. Therefore, the current municipal executive leadership in Jackson should turn over resources to the social movements that will empower and resource them in their quest to create economic development organizations, programmes and projects. 

2. Part of the class struggle, racial justice movement and feminist movement
When we talk or think about social and economic change in the City of Jackson, it is not being done in a contextless structural context. We are compelled to address the systems of capitalism, white supremacy/racism and patriarchy and their impact on the lives of the working-class, racialized majority. It is critically important to frame the labour self-management and the solidarity economy project as one that is centred upon seeking a fundamental change to power relations defined by gender race and class.
The worker cooperative movement ought to see itself as a part of the broader class struggle movement that seeks to give control to the labouring classes over how their labour is used and the surplus or profit from collective work is shared. The solidarity economy and labour self-management will have to seriously tackle oppression coming out of the major systems of domination and allow our organizing work to be shaped by the resulting analysis. 

3. Develop an alternative political decision-making process — an assembly system of governance
The system of assemblies that is proposed in The Jackson Plan is the right approach to creating alternative participatory democratic structures. It is through these political instruments that the people will set the communities’ priorities and wage a struggle of contestation with the powers-that-be in the liberal capitalist political system.
As we strive to build the embryonic collectivistic economic structures of the future just society, we need the political equivalent. The latter should be of a scale that allows for direct democratic participation of the people. The federative principle can be used to link the community-based assemblies into a unified body, whose role would be a coordinating one. Power must reside at the base where the people are located. 

4. Displacing economic predators who are currently located in racialized, working-class communities
In working-class Afrikan communities across the United States, there are economic predators that exploit and dominate the local business scene. These petty capitalists must be seen for what they are; business operators who do not normally employ the people in the local community and they live and spend the wealth generated elsewhere. We do not need to search for business ideas or opportunities because the existing capitalists and their businesses should become targets for replacement with worker cooperatives and other solidarity economy enterprises. If these existing owners would like to become worker-cooperators, they are free to join the labour self-managed enterprises. 

The City of Jackson could contribute to worker cooperative development in a number of areas. It could make a material contribution in the areas of technical assistance provision, financing, procurement and contract set-aside for worker cooperatives, education and promoter of labour or worker self-management and the social economy. 

Evangelical promoter of worker self-management and the social economy
The City of Jackson’s Office of Economic Development [14] is the chief organ that facilitates business development. Its mandate is "to maximize the city’s potential as a thriving center for businesses, jobs, robust neighborhoods and economic opportunity for everyone in the Capital City…. supports business and the development community within city government and between city agencies. It also partners with other organizations to further economic development."
This terms of reference should be expanded and specifically state that it "promotes worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives and other social economy enterprises as instruments to create economic security, jobs, livable wages, economic development and economic democracy." 

Furthermore, the Office of Economic Development should be empowered to vigorously, strategically and relentlessly create the enabling condition for the development of worker cooperatives and other social enterprises in Jackson. A part of its worker or labour self-management agenda should include transforming the city of Jackson into a catalyst for this approach to workplace democracy, workers’ control of the means of production and the producers of wealth being the ones who determine how the economic surplus or profit shall be distributed. 

This new role for the Office of Economic Development will be startling for some and is likely to generate opposition. But Mayor Lumumba ought to borrow a play from the playbook of conservative governments; move lightning fast in implementing his administration’s policies in the first two years and keep the opposition dizzy, disoriented and playing catch up. 

Lumumba has a mandate to include labour self-management by way of worker cooperatives. The economic development plank in the mayor’s election platform stated that he is committed to "build[ing] co-ops and green industry" and ensuring "that Jacksonians are well-represented with jobs and business ownership." [4] Labour self-management, cooperatives of all types and social enterprises are the tools needed to give form to his electoral commitment. Colorlines’ writer Jamilah King also interprets Lumumba’s platform in a similar fashion: 

    In his campaign literature and in news media interviews, Mayor Lumumba stressed that his economic program will incorporate principles of the "solidarity economy." Solidarity [15] economy is a[n] umbrella term used to describe a wide variety of alternative economic activities, including worker-owned co-operatives, co-operative banks, peer lending, community land trusts, participatory budgeting and fair trade. [5] 

Larry Hales correctly asserts, "Lumumba’s political history did not scare away voters, nor did the bold and progressive Jackson Plan, which is reminiscent of the Republic of New Afrika’s program of the 1960s, calling for the establishment of an independent Black-led government in six former confederate states." [6] The City of Jackson should move ahead and start implementing the solidarity economy mandate. Mayor Lumumba should immediately hire a team of solidarity economy and labour self-management personnel, whose principal role would be to bring about the condition for the economic democracy take-off. 

They would be embedded in the Office of Economic Development and at least one of the positions should be a senior leadership/management one. The latter is needed to communicate Lumumba’s seriousness about the social economy thrust of his administration and to give the necessary clout to the economic democracy team to get the work done. Lumumba, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the Jackson People’s Assembly will have to get out into the community and in all available spaces to educate the people about labour self-management and the solidarity economy. 

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer with the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity and the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.

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