Lectures 5 and 6: Distributing Surplus

NOTE: These notes can be read in conjunction with the pdf of Lecture 5 powerpoint slides.


These two lectures were based on Chapter 3, Take Back Business: Distributing Surplus. The overall aim was to introduce students to the idea of surplus, and especially: 1) the different ways that surplus can be 'owned' and therefore who decides what to do with surplus; and 2) the different ways that surplus can be distributed to directly benefit people and the planet. We covered most of this in Week 5 and in Week 6 watched the film The Take (and discussed their case studies).


Lecture 5 was 'content-heavy' as I wanted to cover the key points in Chapter 3 so we had enough time in Week 6 to watch The Take (and discuss their case studies). The lecture was organised around 3 key questions and an exercise.

FIRST,  why 'take back business'? We started by thinking about what business is for and why we might need to take it back. (See slides 1 to 5 – note that this shows the final version, initially slides 2 and 3 simply had the questions and I got the students to brainstorm possible answers before showing them my answers. When brainstorming the question on slide 3, I got the students to think back to Lecture 1 and our discussion of why we need to take back the economy).

SECOND, what is surplus? Based on the discussion of surplus in Take Back the Economy (TBTE) (pages 53 to 65), we started with the general concept of surplus and then moved on to the more specific Marxian-based understanding of surplus labour, using examples of capitalist enterprises straight out of TBTE. (Slides 6 to 15)

THIRD, who 'owns' surplus and how is it distributed? We then talked about community economy concerns about the conditions under which surplus is produced, who owns the surplus and what it is used for (slides 16 to 25). We did this by looking at the example of a cooperative (FaSinPat) and a social enterprise (Homeboy Industries). These are discussed in TBTE, and there are good online materials about each, including YouTube clips. For example, when we discussed FaSinPat we read the material about FaSinPat from TBTE (pages 51 to 53, and 60 to 63) and watched the short trailer to a documentary about FaSinPat. When we discussed Homeboy Industries we read the material in TBTE (pages 70 to 72) and we watched a brief documentary about the enterprise. In retrospect it would have been important to say more about capitalist enterprises such as Interface Carpets Inc. to show how capitalist enterprises can also distribute surplus in ways that will benefit people and the planet (see TBTE pages 68 to 69).

FOURTH, an exercise. For the exercise this week, we worked the students worked on the Taking Back Business Chapter 3 Tool (and see slides 26 and 27). Students paired up to look at different enterprises that they identified. This exercise was difficult for the students as they did not know enough about the enterprises they selected. Students probably need materials so there is more structure. However, the exercise did get students interested in how enterprises operate. Two of the students did their case study on the Women Workers’ Cooperative at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and you can access Hope and Victor’s case study powerpoint presentation. Another student did his case study on the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals and Homeboy Industries (see above). Both run a series of social enterprises for marginalised groups. There is information online about the social enterprises run by Tung Wah Group of Hospitals.



This week we started with the students giving me an update on their plans for their case study assessment item, and then we watched the documentary, The Take (by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein), about the take-over of factories and other businesses by workers in Argentina in the early 2000s.

We had already covered some of the background to The Take by discussing FaSinPat in Lecture 5 (one of the factories that workers had taken-over).

I have shown the film several times to different groups of students, but this time it was very different. The students in the class still had strong memories of the Umbrella Revolution—the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in the latter part of 2014 when protestors, largely students, occupied several major districts for 79 days. What had been a relatively small demonstration unexpectedly escalated once the police used tear gas on students. It’s estimated that 1 million people (almost one-seventh of the population) became involved.

Like the workers in the film, the students had first-hand experience of acting on their political commitments to take and occupy; like the workers in the film, the students had first-hand experience of clashes with the police and the use of tear gas. During those scenes at the Argentinian barricades, the silence in the room was, to use a cliché, deafening. There is no doubt in my mind that the students identified and felt a sense of solidarity with the workers in Argentina. The film is 87 minutes long and I wanted the students to watch the whole file, but this meant that we didn’t have a lot of time for discussion at the end. A missed opportunity?