Ownership Through Use: The Co-operative Economy and Expropriation


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Expropriation and Collectivity

Revolutionary struggle necessitates an aspiration for collectivity. Those who exploit us and withhold the fruits of our work from us will not willingly give up their wealth and power. To carve out autonomous territory, or to begin the revolutionary process, goods, land, and tools must be expropriated, or taken away from those who withhold them.

The strategy of expropriation has historical roots in the Abolitionist struggle. It was used directly following the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to destroy the system of plantation labor and to hinder the capacity of the planter class as they fought to reintroduce slavery in the US. Plantations were pillaged, while plantation property and records destroyed. In another case, the land at a Georgia plantation was subdivided by and parceled out to former slaves for their cultivation.

For expropriation to be a successful tactic political organizations must already be in place. As goods and production are taken over, they can be put into collective hands, and organized for communal use. During the Spanish Civil War, workplaces were seized after the owners fled or stopped production to sabotage the revolution. Revolutionaries continued until all major places of work were taken over; many were run and controlled by the workers. In others committees were established to override a lingering boss. In the most ideal cases, decisions were made collectively through an assembly, and delegates would deal with everyday issues.

This didn’t happen spontaneously. Radical union members were already organized or had become ensconced in these workplaces, which ensured that they would take on these roles. It’s also important to note that these cooperatives relied on the political momentum sweeping across all levels of society, as in the militias, schools, food distribution, and so on. Without this wave of social liberation, it would have been difficult to protect workplace seizures or ensure collectivity.

Ownership by Use and a Cooperative Economy

In Rojava, the metric for deciding who gets what is not who can pay the most, but what needs people have. Resources produced locally are primarily for the people who live there, and the intention is equal distribution throughout the communes. The intention is “ownership by use” rather than ownership for the sake of profit. For example, homelessness does not exist because whoever needs a home can use an empty one, and communal relations, and familial ties ensure people have this basic necessity. The neighborhood councils help facilitate the distribution of food and necessities, making sure health and sustenance are provided broadly.

Production happens through non-hierarchical co-operatives. To make sure that women are equally represented, organizations such as the Women’s Economic Committee provides training on how to set up and run a co-operative: “In a capitalist economy, the person with the expertise becomes the owner and extracts profit from employing other people. Our system is not capitalist—people work together on a basis of equality and share the resources equally on the basis of solidarity. Everybody acquires expertise so they are self-reliant.” [19]

This economic model is ideal for both encouraging self-direction and regional self-sufficiency. Food production in the autonomous territory of the Zapatistas shows how these principles can be integrated. The Zapatista food system is developed according to the perspective that residents and the local food system are intertwined. Food and knowledge production are guided by the necessity of preserving the health and well-being of individuals, communities, and ecosystems. Agricultural students are taught sustainable farming methods that promote autonomy through communal subsistence farming, collectivizing harvests, and equitably distributing labor. Here the economic system and the ideological and social are virtually indistinguishable from one another and are adapted for communal life.

Towards the struggle

Those who strive for liberation typically have a drive toward communalization. On the one hand, when the immediate desire for liberation erupts in riots, looting routinely results in communalizing the bounty in the streets. In these moments of rupture, the default tendency of self-organization usually results in collectivity and sharing. On the other, a number of revolutionary groups around the country have already begun building the basis of a co-operative economy.

For those already committed to communality, from die-hard organizers to sympathetic donors, there is consistently selfless donation to revolutionary movements in the form of time, resources, and expropriated goods. Whatever the level of engagement, there is always genuine motivation that underpins this generosity. These people are not trying to get paid or seek personal fame, but are deeply invested in the outcome of the movement and will commit their resources to as best they can. At the same time, they are constructing the infrastructure for communal resources.

Even without direct coordination, incidents can rouse massive amounts of money, as in when a comrade is injured during a battle. With more circumspection and careful planning, collectives like Anarchist Black Cross, which supports political prisoners, have built substantial commissary funds, while others have built collective warchests. This foundation can be expanded to the broader public through programs like the Black Panthers’ Survival Programs, where free meals and clothing, free stores, health clinics, and other resources were made available to the broader public. This effort established an economy based on mutual aid and builds up the health and well-being of people in areas excluded from basic necessities by the State.

In a more recent example, the Anti-Repression Committee in San Francisco began as a means for bailing movement members out of jail after political actions. The fund was started by an original set of donations. Members bail people out using that money and once the person returns to court, the money recycles back to the fund. The Committee became a useful way of supporting everyone participating in the resistance as well as distributing funding to the most needy cases.

This economy was expanded when the Anti-Repression Committee began tracking down and paying the bail of people who had joined a protest for the first time. As they were not known to long-time revolutionaries, these people could easily have fallen through the cracks of support. The Committee connected with scouts in the legal response community who would give them a heads up when such a person was arrested. By extending the fund in this way, people new to the movement were initiated into the practice of mutual aid and movement support. They were invited into the community and made to feel that their rebellion didn’t carry the stigma of arrest, but would, in fact, be aided if they chose to continue participating.

As a resistance movement, our ability to provide for ourselves is relative to our territorial expansion. In conjunction with carving out enclaves, expropriation is an important move as we create political spheres by establishing communities of resistance. The basis of such an economy will be returning land and its material resources to the hands of the people who live there, and communalizing resources amongst neighbors.

In the immediate future, the success of struggles based on the same political foundations is essential for the growth of all of them. This horizontal network must be built through strong political allegiances, based on established networks and extended to the ones that we will soon build. Revolutionary groups and councils activate material resources, and move them from areas of abundance to regions of need. By expanding these practices to our neighbors, they in turn open up access to new resources. Mutual support cuts through borders and the artificial deprivation of capitalism, increasing our ability to expand.

In Conclusion

Revolutionary change will not come as a singular event, nor an immediate exchange of power, but an ongoing struggle to free us all from the bonds of oppression and distribute power to communities of resistance. The illusion that a small group can seize state power and enact the will of the majority has dried up in the gulags, prisons, and killing fields of nation-states around the world. The Cantons of Rojava, a network of councils without the State, has introduced a new revolutionary paradigm.

The organization is simple and pragmatic: resources are distributed to people based on need and decisions are made by those they affect. Yet the councils solve many larger problems by negating the role of domination and hierarchy in political relationships. The ability of revolutionary organization, tied into decentralized political practices, to free the most oppressed members of our society has shown that it is the key to victory in our centuries-long struggle for liberation.

Within the scope of the abolitionist struggle, it is essential to work towards a long term liberatory solution. The legacy of previous struggles in the US demonstrates that our need for new methods of revolutionary organization must be built deliberately, completely outside the carceral apparatus of the State, and grounded in the predominant conflicts in the country. Our project’s integrity depends on whether it is rooted in destroying the slave-state, revolutionary decentralization, and vigorous self-defense to prevent other political forces from subsuming or defeating us.

As we formulate our next steps, we harken to Rojava as a model. Just as it is grounded in the Kurdish liberation movement in Rojava, we here must ground ourselves in the black liberation movement against slavery. We must organize locally in the council model and protect and expand our work with militant self defense. Lastly, as the Kurds fought against slavery in Sinjar, we must destroy the slave system in the US. By outlining the next steps of our struggle with this revolutionary formulation in mind, we can find a way to carry our indomitable struggle forward.

Next: A Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement