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.