Ajamu Nangwaya

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.— Chokwe Lumumba[1]

“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 labor or worker self-management 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 labor brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Many workers saw the emancipation of labor emerging from their power over the way that work was organized and the fruit of their labor 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 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 Africans 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 X Grassroots Movement and other progressive forces to transform the city of Jackson into America’s own Mondragon. It could have one possible exception. Jackson could become an evangelical force that is committed to spreading labor self-management and the social economy across the South and the rest of this society—the United States.

The promotion of the social economy and labor self-management could engage and attract Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” onto the stage of history as central actors in the drama of their own emancipation. By promoting the social economy/labor 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 from Guinea-Bissau in West Africa and his 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 labor self-management.

Based on the thrust of The Jackson-Kush Plan, 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 labor self-management and the social economy in Jackson. They are as follows:

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, counter hegemonic organizational spaces from which to struggle against the dominant economic, social and political structures.

In any labor 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 and feminist movements

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 labor 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 laboring classes over how their labor is used and the surplus or profit from collective work is shared. The solidarity economy and labor 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 community’s 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 city-wide, regional, or state-wide 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 but they live and spend the wealth generated elsewhere. We do not need to search hard 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 labor 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 labor 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 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.”

The terms of reference should be expanded and specifically states 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 labor 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 to some and is likely to generate opposition. But Mayor Lumumba ought to borrow a play from the playbook of conservative governments; move with lightning speed 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 labor 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:

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

Larry Hales correctly asserts that “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 five 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 labor 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 labor self-management and the solidarity economy.

Education and conscientization for worker self-management

The people have been long exposed to the capitalist approach to economic development and it is quite fair to assert that the ideas of capitalism are dominant on the question of economic efficacy. The people might have critique of capitalism but it is generally seen as the only game in town, especially with the demise of the former Soviet Union and with it bureaucratic, authoritarian state socialism. In this context Marley’s exhortation to the people to “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds” is very instructive.

The preceding verses from Marley’s “Redemption Song” implicitly call on us to engage in critical education about oppression and emancipation. As worker self-management practitioners and/or advocates our educational programmes would also provide the necessary knowledge, skills and attitude to operate worker cooperatives, other social enterprises and the enabling labor self-management structures. Therefore, the educational initiatives would be directed at facilitating worker self-management and the social economy and political/ideological consciousness-raising.

In carrying out this educational programme, the method of teaching and learning should mimic the democratic economic development method that we are pursuing. We are not seeking to reinscribe authoritarian, leadership-from-above ways of teaching and learning. I believe ancestor Ella Baker, advocate of participatory democracy and an organizer within the Afrikan Liberation Movement in the United States, was onto something when she declared, “Give people light and they will find a way.”[7]

We are not seeking mastery over the people. The goal is to engender in the laboring classes an appreciation and consciousness of the transformative possibilities and to move toward their realization.

Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed reminds us, “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people — they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”[8]

One of the admirable features of labor self-management is its commitment to placing the power of economic self-determination in the hands of the worker-cooperators. Education has long been an instrument for igniting the passion for emancipation within the radical or revolutionary sections of the labor self-management movement. Mayor Lumumba is very much aware of the educational task ahead in developing the social economy:

And this will bring about more public education and political education to the population of the city, make our population more prepared to be motivated and organized in order to participate in the changes which must occur in the city of Jackson in order to move it forward. We say the people must decide. ‘Educate, motivate, organize’.[9]

Mayor Lumumba and his civil society allies can carry out the following educational initiatives to advance worker cooperatives and the social economy:

  • Hire worker cooperative educators and developers among the staff of the Office of Economic Development.
  • Execute professional development education of all city personnel with economic and business development responsibilities.
  • Educate institutional actors such as hospitals, educational institutions and the city’s bureaucracy on the economic virtue of purchasing from worker cooperatives and other social enterprises that are located in Jackson.
  • Organize labor self-management and social economy workshops for all relevant elected municipal officials and their staff.
  • Develop a public education campaign to educate the people about worker cooperatives, labor self-management and the social economy.
  • Enlist the support of the United States Worker Cooperative Federation, regional worker cooperative federations and cooperative educators in designing a worker cooperative/labor self-management education training manual and programme.
  • Develop a three-year social economy and worker self-management education pilot project in an elementary, junior high and high school.
  • Infuse materials on the social economy and labor self-management in all business and economics courses in the elementary and secondary school curricula.
  • Engage in dialogue with the colleges and universities in the city of Jackson to add courses and programmes on the social economy and labor self-management.
  • Work with colleges and universities and the state on workforce adjustment or retraining programmes that prepare workers for cooperative and labor self-management entrepreneurship

Technical assistance

Jackson’s Business Development Division provides prospective business operations with advice on preparing their business plans, site selection and access to financial resources. Its role and that of other entities within the city’s bureaucracy should be enhanced to provide business formation and development technical assistance to prospective worker cooperatives and other social economy businesses. The City of Jackson’s technical assistance provision role could include the following:

  • Work with civil society groups and the postsecondary institutions in the region to create a civil society-based technical assistance provider organization that would facilitate the formation and development worker cooperatives and other social economy businesses.
  • Sell a city-owned building at the nominal price of $1 to a community-based labor self-management and social economy technical assistance provider.
  • Aid the technical assistance provider to create a labor self-management and social economy incubator to increase the survival rate of these firms.
  • Provide assistance and advice on the identification of business creation opportunities and the development of feasibility studies and business plans.
  • Provide training and development opportunities to social enterprises that would allow them to bid for city contracts.

Financing labor self-management

One of the most serious challenges faced by small businesses is their limited access to investment and working capital. We have to find creative ways to build organizations that are able to mobilize capital for labor self-management and other social economy projects. The City of Jackson currently provides grants and incentives to businesses so as to attract investment dollars. It can expand the criteria to include worker cooperatives, other cooperatives and social enterprises. Some of the financial instruments that could be explored are:

  • Encourage worker cooperatives and other cooperatives to apply for its matching business grants in the Small Business Development Grant Program and the Storefront Improvement Grant, which provides up to $15,000 to recipients.
  • Create a Social Economy Development Grant Program that provides up to $30,000 to worker cooperatives and other social economy firms that employ at least seven employees, invest at least $100,000 (20 per cent of which can be sweat equity) and employ at least 75 per cent of the workers from within Community Development Block Grant eligible areas.
  • Create a Social Economy Feasibility and Business Plan Grant that provides a 1:1 matched funding grant of up to $10,000.
  • Create a credit union that is committed to facilitating cooperative entrepreneurship and community economic development.
  • Collaborate with credit unions to expand their capacity to serve as agents for cooperative economic development.
  • Work with civil society organizations to create a cooperative and social enterprise loan fund. The revolving loan fund Cooperative Fund of New England could be used as a model for the provision of start-up and working capital to social economy entities.
  • Capitalize the cooperative and social economy loan fund with a $300,000 grant over four years that would be matched at a 2:1 ratio from foundations, trade unions and other social movement organizations and/or other levels of government.
  • Procure funding for a labor self-management and social economy incubator that is operated by a civil-society-based organization.
  • Seek funds to support the matched savings instrument called the Individual Development Accounts. Prospective worker-cooperators would use their accumulated savings to capitalize their labor self-managed enterprises. This matched savings programme would enable worker cooperators in developing the business plans through its accompanying educational component.

Procurement and equal opportunity programme

  • Create procurement opportunities for worker cooperatives and other social economy businesses, including those with a few worker-cooperators or employees and a small annual turnover.
  • Establish business or contracting set-asides that are exclusively directed at worker cooperatives and other social economy businesses.
  • Include worker cooperatives in equal opportunity or affirmative action business programmes established by the city.
  • Develop sub-contracting opportunities for cooperative businesses on the city’s infrastructure development projects.
  • Develop the creative capacity to ensure that labor self-managed and social economy firms are able to participate in business opportunities with the City of Jackson.


We have to build the road as we travel. All of our organizing work should be directed at developing the capacity of the oppressed to act independently of the structures of domination. The Lumumba administration, the Jackson People’s Assembly and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement have an opportunity to use the resources of the municipal state to advance labor self-management and the solidarity economy.

The worker cooperative movement and progressive entities across the United States should support the civil society forces in Jackson in their effort to build the supportive organizations and structures to engender labor self-management and the solidarity economy. The labor self-management and social economy work being advanced in Jackson ought to be geared toward the purpose of social emancipation and to place the people in the driver’s seat in creating history.

I would like to close with a statement by the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta who captures the spirit in which we ought to wage struggle and create a participatory-democratic culture within the movement for emancipation:

We who do not seek power, only want the consciences of [the masses]; only those who wish to dominate prefer sheep, the better to lead them. We prefer intelligent workers, even if they are our opponents, to anarchists who are such only in order to follow us like sheep. We want freedom for everybody; we want the masses to make the revolution for the masses. The person who thinks with [her] own brain is to be preferred to the one who blindly approves everything…. Better an error consciously committed and in good faith, than a good action performed in a servile manner.[10]

First published: Pambazuka News, September 18, 2013, https://www.pambazuka.org/governance/seek-ye-first-worker-self-management-kingdom

  1. Chokwe Lumumba, “Jackson, Mississippi, Mayor-elect Chokwe Lumumba on economic democracy,” interview by Anne Garrison, San Francisco Bayview, June 20, 2013. 
  2. Amilcar Cabral, Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969, 86. 
  3. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) and the Jackson People’s Assembly, ‘The Jackson Plan: A Struggle for Self-determination, Participatory Democracy and Economic Justice,’ Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, July 7, 2012, http://mxgm.org/the-jackson-plan-a-struggle-for-self-determination-participatory-democracy-and-economic-justice/
  4. Electlumumbamayor.com 
  5. Jamilah King, J. “Mayor Chokwe Lumumba wants to build a ‘solidarity economy’ in Jackson, Miss.” Colorlines, July 2, 2013.
  6. Larry Hales, “The political, historical significance of Chokwe Lumumba mayoral win in Jackson, Miss.,” Workers World, June 25, 2013. 
  7. Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker, The Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 105
  8. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), 178. Retrieved from http://libcom.org/files/FreirePedagogyoftheOppressed.pdf
  9. Monica Moorehead, “People’s Assembly’s platform brings mayoral victory for Chokwe Lumumba,” Workers World, June 11, 2013,http://www.workers.org/2013/06/11/peoples-assembly-platform-brings-mayoral-victory-for-chokwe-lumumba/
  10. Cited in Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Oakland: AK Press, 2009, 184.


Jackson Rising Copyright © 2017 by Ajamu Nangwaya. All Rights Reserved.

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