Co-ops help bring economics back to the people
As disillusionment with capitalism sets in, the co-operative movement is offering alternatives to the profit-driven model
With capitalism stuck in the mire, alternatives are starting to become imaginable once again. We were among a throng of 10,000 at Co-operatives United, a three-day feast of possibilities, though with plenty of reality checks to avoid feeling satiated.
The co-op movement has a lot to boast about. The combined value of the UK’s co-operative sector grew by 20% throughout the recession, according to figures compiled by Co-operatives UK. Credit unions and co-operative banking, from Montreal to Mondragon and Manchester, have proved resilient in the face of the financial crisis.
In the halls of the vast Manchester Central convention complex, the success stories behind these statistics were on display, from European movements such as Rescoop, committed to enabling communities to set up their own renewable energy projects, to Manchester’s own Unicorn Grocery, which is successfully appealing to communities to support them in sourcing local food.
A federation of agricultural co-operatives in Palestine was one of many examples stimulating debate about a co-operative model of economic development that could break dependence on aid. And training sessions hosted outside the venue by Manchester’s fan-owned football club FC United illustrated the wider popular appeal of the co-op model.
History feeds the imagination too. The Rochdale Pioneers and their first co-operative shop were being celebrated not just as romantic icons but also as a source of evidence of the viability of an economic model based on democracy, ethical values and commitment to labour as a creative force and not just a cost.
There was a moment in the 1990s when the Co-operative Group itself might have become history. Margaret Thatcher’s tsunami of demutualisation nearly engulfed the largest and most high-profile co-op in Britain today. In the end its history of grassroots democracy provided resilient channels through which members defended its co-operative principles against a minority of its leadership.
Yet these formal structures of representative democracy, with their strong emphasis on length of service, have been double-edged. While they have acted to protect the movement, as its founders intended, it also tended to create closed, slow-moving institutions. For instance, it was too closed to be renovated by the new democratic energies and ideas that emerged in the late 1960s and 70s. A drastic process of radical reform in the late 90s, however, has opened the institutions of co-operation in the UK, most notably the Co-op Group and Co-operatives UK, to successive waves of initiatives.
A question bouncing around the pods, stalls and halls of Co-operatives United was whether the official co-op movement is sufficiently open and agile to be renewed again by movements such as Occupy, the free culture movement and the widespread desire for "real democracy". How can co-ops act as part of an alternative to the crisis-ridden model of capitalist accumulation, and how can the state support and internalise co-operative practice?
The sense of possibility and potential was combined with attention to warning signs from the world outside. Noting the growth of self-help organisations amid the wreckage of the Greek economy, Co-operatives UK head Ed Mayo also told of the closure of "a swath of consumer co-operatives well before the current crisis", indicating both the strength of co-operation as a means of survival but also the difficulties that it faces going into a period of pressure. There was talk too from Colombia and Italy of "bogus co-ops" used to cut labour costs; such stories have echoes here as the government co-opts the language of co-operation for its bogus "big society".
But co-ops originally came out of the labour movement, and today these bonds are being re-made at many levels – from unions being welcomed in successful co-ops like the SUMA wholefood store to negotiations between the Co-op college and teaching and public sector unions to comply with nationally agreed terms and conditions in co-op schools. The Self Employed Women’s Association of India and motorcycle taxi-drivers in Kigali, Rwanda, have even formed co-ops that are also unions – and able to bargain with contractors and public authorities for the wages and conditions of their members.
The event’s debates showed the difficulty in navigating from a laboratory of impressive experiments to a wider "economics based on people rather than profit", as International Co-operative Alliance president Pauline Green put it. As Sion Whellens of the long-established co-op printers Calverts said: "The economic success of co-ops is not enough to go beyond capitalism."
Yet we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state. What is required is a modern form of the collaboration between the founders of the labour, co-operative and socialist movements. The well-established co-operators and the new pioneers who converged on Manchester are well placed to catalyse these alliances and extend this archipelago of alternatives.