OWS Screenprinting: Markets, Commons and Questions, Part II

Jesse Goldsteinby Jesse Goldstein, City University of New York

I began part one of this essay with a trip to the Hunter College Women’s Day Fair, where the OWS Screenprinters Coop was set up for the day.  Technically, both the OWS Screenprinters Guild and the OWS Screenprinters Cooperative were both there, and in this second part of my essay I want to start exploring the complicated relationship between these two overlapping projects – and more generally, between markets, commons, and utopian socialism.

This past winter, after Zuccotti Park had been cleared, many active participants in the movement took time for some much needed restoration and regrouping.  The OWS Screenprinters (one of whom is me!) did keep our presence alive during this time, but we also began to explore ways in which our project needed to shift along with the shifting realities of the movement we supported.

After a series of conversations with a number of other working groups, including members from the Alternative Economies group, three members of the Screenprinters Guild decided to step up and try to form a workers’ cooperative.  So now there is a Coop and a Guild. As an OWS working group, the Guild is required to have public meetings, remain open to all who want to participate, and never provide direct compensation to any participants. As a fledgling business, the Coop wants to create a functional business, develop strong ties amongst their core members, and eventually earn enough money to help three people pay their rent.  Negotiating these two overlapping groups can get complicated: The same three people who make up the Coop are currently the most active members of the Guild.  The Guild operates at actions and always provides free screenprinting on other people’s stuff, while the Coop pre-prints shirts to sell at stores and even at some of the same events as the Guild (which is not difficult, since the Guild and the Coop are usually, but not always, the same people).  For the time being, the Coop is using the Guild’s resources, though our plan is for the Coop to eventually be able to stand on its own feet, and separate entirely from the Guild.  The Guild has public meetings once weekly, but often only the Coop members show, frustrated that they have to have a Coop meeting in the noisy public lobby where Guild meetings are held.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinSome days I’m optimistic, other days less so.  At the Women’s Day Fair, all three Coop members were there, with one screen inked and ready to print, but there were very few students stepping up to purchase the $15-20 (sliding scale) shirts that the Coop was “anti-retailing”.  A moist paper towel was laid over the image to keep the ink from drying into the screen, and I have to admit, the productivist impulse inside me was a little sad to see that fixed capital sitting idle.

As one of the Coop members drizzles some water over the screen to re-moisten the paper towel, another tells me, ‘Providing services for OWS-ers is just not a good market.’

This is true on so many levels.

The Coop is getting a number of job offers, but mostly from other parts of the movement that don’t have the financial resources to offer much in the way of compensation.  And without the excitement of a large public occupation blocks away from Ground Zero, it’s somewhat harder to attract anything even close to the endless stream of occupiers, allies, sympathizers, and tourists that provided the Guild its abundant, effortless market.  Here, then, is the major problem – the movement made a commons, and as a byproduct, this commons provided the Guild with its market.  But now that things have significantly died down; there is no longer a physical commons to operate upon; and the Coop’s market is harder to find.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinIt’s still there, to be sure, but it’s less geographically centralized, making their work that much harder.  And indeed the painful lesson that the Coop members must now accept is just how small a portion of their work entails the actual direct production (screen printing) that initially captured all of our excitement.  Printing tee-shirts is one of many tasks, which now include all of the “faux frais” of production: organization, coordination, transportation, sales, banking…  I can see the weight of all this unproductive labor (in Marx’s sense, mind you) bearing upon them, slowly sapping the excitement out of the project that they’ve bravely taken on.

Things will turn, I’m confident of that, but its hard work.

These are not new problems: I’m reminded of the history of Owenite cooperative experiments, which from 1829-34 percolated through the culture and practices of popular radicalism.  Cooperative stores, cooperative associations and markets, even labor exchanges, all attempted to put into practice viable alternative economies where direct producers could exchange the fruits of their labors in equitable, non-exploitative ways.  However, since these experiments could never supply all of the basic and desired goods that its members demanded, they ultimately remained dependent upon a broader capitalist market (and the cheap goods produced by precisely the sorts of labor relations they wanted to supersede).  Hence participants had no choice but to continue to sell their labor or their goods in the broader market, whose prices were not determined relative to what they “should” cost (according to the true value of labor expended, for the Owenites) but instead relative to what the market would bear.

Photo by Jesse GoldsteinFor this reason, the most radical Owenite experiments failed to create entirely self-sufficient alternative economies.  As my fellow Antipode blogger Christian Anderson explains, ‘The mistake of the Owenites was arguably to think that they could create an alternative that worked only through a self-contained market (which was something like competing against capital on its own terms, rather than imagining new ones with all kinds of different generative relations).’

Of course, semi-sufficient alternatives are certainly possible, and there are many inspiring examples to cull from – but this forces us to ask whether and how the political project is transformed when self-sufficient aspirations have to settle for semi-sufficient alternatives.  Do such experiments keep alive a radical possibility in its partial realization?  Or is there a categorical difference that is being evaded?  What fills the space between the development of a non-capitalist vision and the pragmatism of a semi-capitalist reality?

The struggle – with the OWS Screenprinters – seems to hinge on this distinction.  For a brief period, OWS felt as though we were creating a truly alternative economy.  And yet now that the park is no longer providing this illusion for us, the bitter reality of our persistent and seemingly unavoidable dependence upon the circulation of capital, its markets, and even its “community of money”, has begun to set in.  Is there really that much difference between “anti-retailing” and just plain old-fashioned retailing? Is there really a way to extract enough money from the movement and its supporters for three Coop members to pay their rent and still feel as though they are building an alternative vision of a better possible economy?  “OWS is just not a good market.” Perhaps this is just stating the obvious – really that was the whole point wasn’t it? To NOT be a good market; to fight against the savage economic violence waged upon us by precisely these sorts of “good” markets?

I only have questions, a lot of questions – and will really look forward to some reader responses.  That said, I won’t just stand aside while trying to answer them. I’m still part of the Guild, and when it’s warm enough out, we’ll be back printing in public spaces throughout NYC.

May Day is fast approaching, after all…


  1. Dru

    Thanks for writing this. It’s really valuable to have on-the-ground perspectives of movement and worker co-op combinations. It strikes me that they could be a very powerful combination, but that our understanding of how to put them together is evolving (hopefully rapidly). It’s especially valuable to bring in a historical and theoretical perspective — the perspective that doesn’t get a chance to hit the ground too often.
    Speaking of which, I feel like this bit here: “competing against capital on its own terms, rather than imagining new ones with all kinds of different generative relations…” could use a whole post to itself. I’d really like to see a each of those ideas unpacked, with examples. I can only hope you’ll find the time eventually. But in the mean time: suggested reading along those lines?
    Thanks again. Really important.

    1. jesseg1026

      Thanks for the comment! I agree this is a tricky question – trying to figure out the new, non-capital generative possibilities that are out there… Christian and I are going to try and get some thoughts together, but we’d also love to hear other peoples perspectives on this!!

  2. Culum Canally

    Jesse and Christian,
    Not to diminish the value of slogans printed on t-shirts as an important commodity in our contemporary “cultural capital” status-based economy but I wonder if the commodity was a food product (let’s say fresh vegetables grown through hydroponics indoors) would the cooperative find both a larger base of likely consumers as well as more people interested in becoming members of a guild or co-op? I ask because I am working with a group of people in a rural community that are in the nascent stages of planning a cooperative that would produce vegetables in an attempt to build resiliency and food security in this remote area and am interested to hear your thoughts on whether you felt the use-value of the commodity that the cooperative and guild are producing had anything to do with the pitfalls that your piece discussed.

    1. jesseg1026

      Culum I’m just seeing this now!!! way late – sorry about that. I totally agree with you – i think the OWS printers would as well – the fact that the printers were only able to produce a good that is not a basic staple made a huge impact on their ability to sustain the project.