The ‘unknown knowns’ of the co-operative movement


I’ve just finished reading Slavoj Zizek’s short book the concept of the ‘event’. It’s his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture via a series of distasteful jokes.

Early on he refers to the idea of ‘unknown knowns.’ He is referencing the famous quote from the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

‘Unknown knowns’ are a category Rumsfeld doesn’t refer to but Zizek sees as the essential one he missed: they are those things which we unconsciously follow (like habits or prejudices), the things which structure much of our lives without us even realising it. For Zizek, philosophy’s role is to unmask unknown knowns.

It takes major events, transformation and eruptions to bring unknown knowns to the surface. And if the co-op movement has experienced anything over the last few months its those.

So, what unknown knowns have the last few months brought to the surface for the co-op movement?  What are the big assumptions that the co-operative movement blindly follows?

My view is that we’ve been following a number of mistaken assumptions.

 Unknown known one: we think we’re better than other businesses

We seem to have been working under the assumption that co-ops are ‘better’ than other businesses. But we don’t seem to have been clear how co-ops are better.

We say co-ops build a better world and try to find empirical proof, but do we really understand what makes co-ops different, how they build a better world? What framework should we use to show the difference co-ops make? What makes co-operation different from charity, or CSR?

When co-ops were politicised organisations they provided workers with fairer conditions or practical alternatives to industrial capitalism. What are co-ops now? Businesses? Social movements? Capitalist? Anti-capitalist? A-capitalist? Anarchist? Socialist? Something else?

Unknown known two: we can play the capitalist game

We seem to have been assuming that co-ops can compete with conventional businesses in a market whilst also remaining true to the things that make them better.

Is this right? Can co-ops manage this balance? A number of flat pay worker co-ops indicate yes; the troubles at Mondragon or the Co-op Bank suggest not.

Unknown known three: we’ve lost our purpose

The big one, which perhaps incorporates all of these: ultimately, what we’ve known for some time but seem to have been unable to articulate, is that today’s co-operative movement lacks a clear sense of what it is for, and just as importantly what is against.

This is what the leading Cambridge economist  Ha-Joon Chang was telling us earlier this year:

“My interpretation is that the co-operative movement has lost faith in its own identity. If you don’t take pride in the fact you’re a co-op, you don’t tell other people and therefore people don’t know who you are or what you stand for. If you don’t have faith in yourself, why should other people take you seriously? I think that’s the trouble. There is an identity crisis.”

What would Zizek do if he identified a mistaken assumption? Make a bad joke probably.

What should we do? We need to make a plan, something that sets us on the path to answering these big questions about what co-ops are and aren’t.


Ha Joon Chang on economics students and lecturers

The award-winning Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang is speaking at a couple of interesting conferences in the next two weeks: the International Co-operative Alliance’s research conference and the Rethinking Economics conference. At both he’ll be talking about the need for pluralism in the study and practice of economics.

I was lucky enough to interview him at his Cambridge offices a couple of months ago.

I asked whether he had any optimism and he highlighted a much-needed positive outcome of the financial crisis: as the quick rise in Rethinking Economics groups shows, economics students have become aware of the narrow approach to economics that their lecturers are offering and are demanding that alternative approaches receive equal treatment.

He was refreshingly candid in the interview.

“Students are acutely aware that the kind of economics they are taught is largely useless, if not actively distorting in explaining in reality.

“Unfortunately the teachers still have to wake up to it. Seriously, which subject has a nationwide open revolt by students? My professional colleagues, most of them are so arrogant, they say ‘these students, they don’t know what they are talking about.

“In the end my colleagues will have to answer to the market that they so love. The customers are saying what you are giving us is shoddy.

“This is one thing that makes me a bit hopeful. The young generations are finally saying enough is enough; we have to do things differently.”

You can read the full article on the Co-operative News website here.

The philosophy of rewilding 

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George Monbiot’s Feral is a well-written, well-researched book arguing that we need to ‘rewild’ our lands, our seas and ourselves. His contention is that our world has gradually shifted away from its wild state as we have sought to domesticate and control it. Lands have been stripped of forests and the ecosystems they supported. The seas have been stripped of its plant life. And we are more disconnected from nature and risk than ever before. We should, he says, reintroduce native species, leave the land and sea alone, live wilder lives.

It’s a polemical book that works on two levels: first person stories about a wilder life pull at the emotions whilst its thorough use of zoological research hits the brain.

There is not, though, any theoretical or philosophical reflection in Feral. Monbiot refers to, and quickly dismisses, the political movement known as ‘anarcho-primitivism’ which wants us to move beyond civilisation and regain our previous wilder lives. And he touches fleetingly on some of the societal and political implications of rewilding. But nothing more. And that’s not a problem – philosophy is not his focus and, after all, you can’t cover everything in a book.

Nevertheless, a look at the philosophy of rewilding would have provided an interesting, different and perhaps more complicating perspective

Rousseau, for example, was big on the link between humans and nature for example. For him, there was an original ‘state of nature’ in which humans were free and happy and which have been stripped away through our politics, states and organisation.

Monbiot isn’t arguing that we should return to some kind of ‘state of nature’ but that we should reintroduce elements of the wild (native species, more risk and so on), which would create something new, wilder and less predictable than our current world.

Nietzsche’s thinking is a bit more complex. Humans are very much part of the natural world, he says, and this is manifested in the repetitive, unimaginative and frankly unremarkable lives most people lead. The concept of the ‘herd mentality’ – which he uses to refer to people’s conformity to mass values – is emblematic of this.

But Nietzsche also has his beloved ‘uberman’: the person who isn’t confined by nature’s limits but lives a striving, creative and remarkable life. This person, in a way, exemplifies the kind of wild life that Monbiot wants.

The problem is, of course, that life would be very difficult if everybody lived like this. Monbiot, in fact, points out that it would not be desirable for everyone to uncontained lives not bounded by laws or moral standards. That’s not an issue for Nietzsche, who says that not everybody is capable of this kind of life anyway: it’s only for the select few, the great.

A less radical and more egalitarian view can be found in Thoreau and one of his interpreters, Jane Bennett.

Thoreau, of course, is known to have given up with civilisation for a year or two and retreated to Walden Woods where he built himself a hut and lived a ludicrously simple life. He documented his daily life so we can all enjoy the mundane existence and occasional insights into the links between human and natural life.

Bennett has a very nice concept that she finds in Thoreau’s writings: ‘the wild’. By this she means those parts of existence that can’t be contained or captured, which elide explanation.

There is always an element of ‘the wild’ which exceeds things she says: it’s those desires that can’t be kept in check, for example, those flowers that appear through cracks in the concrete. The thing is to recognise that ‘the wild’ is always there and, rather than contain it, embrace it.

Embracing ‘the wild’ also appears to be a theme in some of the most prominent critical theory today – in the work of Zizek and Badiou, for example. I can’t imagine either would have any particular interest in the environmental debate about rewilding. But I can imagine that a shift to a world where people live wilder, more risky land radically different lives would appeal to them.

Zizek’s concept of ‘the act’ and Badiou’s ‘event’ are both about people, collectively, deciding they want a change an trying to bring it about without knowing what it will result in  – in other words, they are about people taking a risk.

There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a philosophy of rewilding. It’s not hard to see, though, that the ideas of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Zizek, Badiou and I have no doubt many others (Aristotle Spinoza, Deleuze . . .) would add an extra, though not always unequivocal, dimension to Monbiot’s call to rewild our lives.