The representation of co-ops in popular culture

When I lived in Manchester I used to shop at a large wholefood co-op. It was cheap, well stocked with good food, nicely set out and one of the major attractions in the area.

Some of my friends, though, never shopped there. Their reasons varied, from it being too expensive to being too worthy or just not for them. Mostly, they’d never been there and they’d never really been anywhere like it. Yet their views were hardened.

What was going on here?

They had negative views of it because it was a co-op. And they had formed their opinions – as evidence shows countless others have across the UK and internationally – because they feel that they already know what co-ops are like.

They ‘know’, that is, that worker co-ops like this are run by yoghurt -weaving sandal-wearing hippies; that they are expensive; that they are used by middle class well-to-do types, not normal people who shop at the supermarket.

And it strikes me that the reason for this – the reason that that they think these things despite never having experienced the co-op directly – is that there are a number of ‘discourses’ or sets of ideas about co-ops in popular culture. These circulate through books, TV, films, the news media, political speeches, and so on and influence how people view co-ops.

‘Discourses’ – as many thinkers from Michel Foucault onwards have recognised – are sets of ideas circulating in culture and society that exert a powerful influence over the way people think. People’s views on everything – politics, family, consumption, everything – are partly determined by them. Discourses do not fully determine people’s views, as there are often different and contradictory discourses circulating in popular culture, and plenty else that influences how people think and behave too. But discourses have a major influence.

Another way of thinking about this is with the sociologist Jean Baudrillard who developed concepts such as ‘simulacra’ and ‘hyperreality’ to convey the idea that people’s experience of the world is not direct but always mediated by technology and media in some way. It’s why, when people go into a rough inner city area, they say ‘this is like The Wire’. And it’s why people increasingly feel they haven’t done something if they haven’t posted it on Instagram or Twitter. People make sense of the world by reference to the way the world is represented in the media rather than to the world itself.

People’s views on co-ops, in other words, are always based on one or more discourse or set of ideas about co-ops that are circulating in popular culture.

I think we can see a few competing and contradictory discourses operating in the UK.

The particular discourse I’m referring to above is the classic hippy discourse which tells us that co-ops are holier-than-though organisations staffed by bearded vegan hippies in sandals which are beyond the ethics of any normal person. It’s the classic view of worker co-ops in the UK that has emerged since the ’70s.

There are other discourses too.

There’s the ungovernable discourse that says that the co-op structure just isn’t up to the standards  required for modern business and will suffer from business failures, whether a large organisation or a non-hierarchical worker co-op. People still point to the ‘Benn co-ops’ of the 1970s (failing nationalised businesses handed to the workers) for this reason, and the events at the Co-operative Group over the last six months have been an opportunity for people to ask ‘Is there a future for Mutuals?, as the Financial Times did.

There’s the old shops discourse that says that co-ops are dated supermarkets that might have been modern in the 1960s but haven’t changed with the time. Whenever images of old co-operative adverts or the original nineteenth century founders of consumer co-operatives are trotted out in mainstream media, this reinforces the sense that co-operatives are supermarkets from a previous era.

There’s the influential leader discourse, which says that co-ops are all well and good in theory but in practice they don’t work because one or two people will take it over and run it for their own benefit. This is the kind of discourse that somehow seemingly conflates co-operatives with communes and cults. I’ve just read Joyce Carol Oates’ award winning novel We Were the Mulvaneys, which does exactly this: the Green Isle Coop, in her book, turns out to be the brainchild and effectively run by one charismatic leader.

There are more. And in different regions, countries and continents there will be others too.

And this matters, why?

It matters because when the co-op sector wants to understand what people think about co-ops, it tends to conduct pieces of market research that tell us what people think about co-ops so that they can try to adapt their messaging to appeal to existing views, rather than trying to understand why people think these things so that the co-op sector can intervene and try to shift the terms of the debate. In other words, co-ops see people’s views as easily understandable empirical facts to be adapted to, rather than complex beliefs firmly rooted in culture.

If co-operatives are more than just businesses aiming to respond to market demand, but a movement wanting to bring about social and economic change, then an important step is to understand the popular discourses about co-ops on TV and film, in books and in the media, so that we can set about creating a counter-discourse.


How do you justify co-operatives? Or, two concepts of co-operation

When someone asks you why co-operatives are a good thing what do you say? Do you talk about social change and economic alternatives? Or do you talk about productivity and engagement? And, when you do, what are you really saying about the idea of co-operation?

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the justification for co-operatives. So, finally, I’ve decided to take a detailed look at the philosophical ideas that underpin arguments for co-operatives. This extended blog or essay aims to highlight something that I think is interesting, but I’ll explain it in a few bullets for those who are short on time:

  • Explanations of why co-operation is a good thing tend to fall on one of two justifications: either co-operation gives people dignity, autonomy and control over their lives, or it is a way for people to maximise their individual interests, or a mix of the two.
  • Those which put the emphasis on the former social justification are making a strategic decision to position co-ops as an economic alternative. This makes it harder to sell to business leaders, conventional policy makers and business journalists, but elevates co-operatives above being a business model and makes it a movement for economic change.
  • Those which put the emphasis on the latter economic justification are making a strategic decision to position co-operation as an efficient way to maximise individual interests, like productivity gains or costs savings, within the existing market economy. This makes it more acceptable and more likely to go ‘mainstream’ in the current economy, but is at risk of being superseded by other more effective methods for achieving productivity, cost savings and other interests.
  • I conclude with a call to action for those advocating the co-operative model: to think about the long-term implications of your how you choose to justify co-operation.

The extended blog or essay is below. It’s a work in process and I’d welcome comments from people who feel so inclined.


The social concept of co-operation

When we look at the different ways that co-operatives are explained and justified we can, I think, see two concepts or ideas of co-operation at work. This dichotomy is particularly strong in the UK, where I am based and which I know best, but I think applies more widely.

One justification, generally found amongst the more radical wing of the co-op movement in the UK today, but perhaps used more frequently internationally, is based around the idea that co-operation is an end in itself, intimately bound up with others values like dignity, autonomy, control, freedom and equality. Co-operation is something we should do because it is part of what moral philosophers from Aristotle onwards have called the ‘good life’.

The UK’s Radical Routes, which describes itself as a network of radical housing co-ops, worker co-ops and social centres committed to positive social change, express the idea in their slogan:

Homes without landlords

Work without bosses

Society without exploitation

This social conception of co-operation – in which working together is about people being able to take control of their lives – is characterised well by GDH Cole in his analysis of the Rochdale Pioneers in The Century of Co-operation:

” . . . if, in 1844 or some time afterwards, a well-informed Englishman or Sctotsman had been asked to say what he understood by the word ‘Co-operation’ he would most probably have answered in terms which would have described a movement very different in its fundamental ideas and objectives from the Consumers’ Co-operation of to-day. . . . to any of the founders of the Rochdale Society, the answer would certainly not have been mainly in terms of the benefits of mutual store-keeping.

“For Howarth and his fellow pioneers store-keeping was but a means – one among a number of means – of forwarding the Co-operative ideal; and that ideal was the foundation of Co-operative Communities, or ‘Villages of Co-operation,’ in which the members could live together on their own land, work together in their own factories and workshops, and escape from the ills of competitive industrialism in a world – a ‘New Moral World’ – of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood.”

Co-operation here is not about business or individual interests, it is not a means to an end; it is a political and social ideal, a way for people to live dignified lives over which they are in control.

Despite a gap of 150 years, despite a very different environment, despite arguably big differences between the types of organisations involved, Radical Routes’ aims and principles appear as a modern version of this:

“We want to see a world based on equality and co-operation, where people give according to their ability and receive according to their needs, where work is fulfilling and useful and creativity is encouraged, where decision making is open to everyone with no hierarchies, where the environment is valued and respected in its own right rather than exploited.

“We want to take control over all aspects of our lives. However, as we are not all in a position of control we are forced to compromise in order to exist.

“We are working towards taking control over our housing, education and work through setting up housing and worker co-ops, and co-operating as a network.”

Michael Albert, a US activist, theorist and advocate of worker co-ops argues along these lines (in an uncharacteristically mild way): “What characterizes positive direction?” he asks.

“Positive direction is more and more people having a more and more appropriate level of say over their own lives. It is more and more people getting a fairer and fairer share of a social product and getting a fairer set of burdens they have to fulfill to be a part of society.”

The economic concept of co-operation

This social concept of co-operation might be used to explain and justify co-operation at the more radical edges of the co-op movement. But there is a second concept of co-operation that we find more regularly used to justify co-operation: the idea that co-operation is a rational way for people – or businesses – to realise, or maximise, their interests.

This is what is being appealed to when claims like the following are made – the kinds of claims which I have on many occasions made when promoting co-operatives:

  • “By working together businesses can reduce costs, share risks and create new platforms for growth. Consortium co-operatives run on a shared and equal way by, and for the benefit of, their members. Members can be businesses, partnerships or individuals.” This is  Co-operative Development Scotland but it could be from many other organisations.
  • “In the UK and elsewhere it has been shown that employees who have a stake in the company they work for are more committed to delivering quality and are more flexible in the face of the needs of the business.” This argument for employee ownership is from the Cass Business School’s research but a host of organisations, like the Employee Ownership Association and John Lewis, make this point.
  • “Plurality of forms of ownership provides more opportunity to align the form of ownership with the appropriate business model, promotes more resilience to shocks within particular sectors and wider economy, allows investors and savers more avenues in which to save and invest and gives consumers more choice.” This argument that the economy can benefit from more co-operatives because it creates corporate diversity and therefore helps protect the economy as a whole is from the Ownership Commission, chaired by Will Hutton.”
  • “Once outside the public sector, employees report greater professional freedom and flexibility to provide user focused services that are responsive to local needs.” This argument, here from the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals Information Service is a classic argument for how co-operative and mutual models are effective ways to strengthen public services because they unleash the interests and creativity of those most closely involved in the service – the users and staff.

Underlying all these arguments for co-operatives is the idea that co-operation is a strategy for self-interested individuals – or firms – to get the best for themselves: co-operation will encourage people to do more, try harder, reduce costs or protect economic stability

Amongst academics this concept of co-operation is of growing interest. Game theory, rational choice theory and evolutionary biology, from foundational texts like Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation in 1984 to Martin Nowak’s Supercooperators in 2011, all highlight the importance of co-operation amongst self-interest agents.

This concept of co-operation is what we might call an economic one because it is based on the theory of human motivation that is at the foundation of liberal politics and capitalist economics – that people are motivated by the desire to maximise their interests and as such will work together only if it is a way to achieve that. It is best summed up by Adam Smith in 1776, in one of the founding texts of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations.

“In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

A matter of emphasis

There are two concepts of co-operation used to justify co-operation then: one says co-operation is an end in itself, intimately tied up with ideals like dignity and autonomy; the other says that co-operation is a strategy for self-interested individuals to maximise their own interests.

Sometimes the social conception is used to justify co-operating; sometimes the economic conception; often both are used together, and it’s a question of emphasis.

The recent UK Co-operative Economy 2014, Co-operatives UK’s annual state of the sector report, is a case in point. Like many arguments for co-operatives that are directed at policy makers, journalists and business leaders, it puts the emphasis on the economic concept of co-operation:

“As businesses owned and run for the benefit of their members, co-operatives are controlled by the people with the strongest interest in their long-term future: employees, customers, suppliers or local communities. Because they have a stake in the business and share in its profits, the members actively participate in the success of the business.

“This potent combination of people and participation is a tried and tested formula: People + participation = performance.”

It continues:

“More than just businesses, co-operatives are an international force for good. Across the world they offer people a way to organise themselves and take control of the forces that shape their lives. They give workers power over their jobs and livelihoods, allow small businesses to get a better deal in the market and enable customers to influence.”

On this account, co-operation is a way to create long-termism in business, give people a share of profits, help businesses cut costs, get customer input, boost employee productivity and, ultimately, drive performance. There is a nod to the social good of co-ops but it is vague rather than specific and is largely hidden beneath the economic justification. (Full disclosure: I say this as the person who wrote the 2014 UK Co-operative Economy.)

Co-operatives UK’s report is not alone in mixing the social and the economic justifications of co-operation. The International Co-operative Alliance’s eight new statements accompanying the global marque for co-operatives is similar. They range from ‘co-operative enterprises build a better world’ (a social idea) to ‘a growing and sustainable model of enterprise” (an economic idea).

The two justifications are not mutually exclusive then, though as we see with Co-operatives UK’s report and, indeed, with work from the Employee Ownership Association, Cass Business School, Co-operative Development Scotland and the Ownership Commission – in the UK at least, the emphasis tends to be on the economic concept of co-operation.

Why it matters

Why does it matter which idea is used to justify co-operatives? Ultimately, I think it matters in two ways.

First, which you use matters because in using one justification you pose a challenge to our current economic order whilst in using the other you are reinforcing it.

If you use the social conception you are justifying co-operation as an alternative, a way to change economics and society, to give people control and challenge the way that politics and economics currently operate. Ultimately, it’s a political or even ideological justification for co-operatives. This is exactly what Radical Routes are saying.

If you use the economic conception on the other hand you are not challenging the way the economy or business is arranged but saying that co-operatives are an optimum way to deliver within the current economy. This is what we are saying when we argue, for example, that making employees owners creates more profit or value for the business and the economy.

Second, though, it matters which you use because both pose a strategic question for the co-operative movement at the least, and a strategic risk.

By choosing to use the social idea of co-operation you are making a decision about how to position co-operatives: you are choosing to position them as an alternative to business focused on profit maximisation, one that provides people with inherent goods like autonomy, dignity or solidarity.

Strategically, this is an important decision. It makes it far less likely to be accepted by conventional entrepreneurs, business leaders or those supporting business start-ups and growth. It makes it difficult for business journalists to understand and for most policy makers in liberal governments to advocate or support.

In choosing to focus the justification for co-operation on the social theory you are choosing to position co-ops as an economic – perhaps even political – alternative. In so doing, co-operation is being elevated above a mere business model or way of running an organisation: it puts the focus on co-operatives as a movement for economic, social and perhaps even political change.

There are arguably long terms benefits to this kind of positioning: where practical alternatives to capitalism are sought, co-operatives can prove a powerful option, as we have seen in Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba, for example. There are risks, too, though, in isolating co-operatives; not least that they remain a minority form of organisation.

The Canadian co-operative writer John Restakis puts this strategy well – and hints at the dilemmas – in his account of the Greek workers who have reclaimed, and now run as a worker co-op, the Bio Me factory in Athens:

“Bio Me is pointing to a radically new direction about how the workers of Greece and other failing economies might rethink the strategies of resistance they need to pursue if they are to achieve substantive, systemic change. Protest strikes and street demonstrations are one thing. Factory occupation and production under worker control is a new ball game altogether.

“The Bio Me model questions the very idea of the sovereignty of capital. Equally transformative is Bio Me’s vision of a solidarity economy network that operates outside the conventional market system to support models that rely on a wholly different set of values for serving people’s real needs.

Makis and his fellow co-operators are fully aware of the role they are playing in the effort to re-imagine what an economics of equity and justice might look like. And they are under no illusions as to the enormity of the task ahead. But as he said with a characteristic shrug of his shoulders, “What alternative is there? What else can workers do?””

If, on the other hand, you choose to justify co-operation on the basis of self-interest the benefits are much more immediate and tactical. Insofar as there is evidence that co-operatives are more productive, create economies of scale or better services, then it is easier to explain to business, the media and policy makers why the co-operative model ought to be used and supported. This, of course, is why lobbying organisations like Co-operatives UK and reports aiming to influence policy like the Ownership Commission’s adopt this approach. Appealing to the dominant frame in which enterprise is understood is the way to ‘mainstream’ co-operation.

But there is a big strategic risk with this too. If co-operatives are of value only because they help people maximise the interest of individuals or firms – whether creating more productive businesses or enabling businesses to cut costs – then they are open to that result being delivered more effectively by another organisational form or model.

If, for example, the only reason why businesses should be owned by their staff is because it makes those staff more productive then if, say, new technology could increase productivity further then that may render the need for co-operation redundant. Similarly, if the benefit of co-operatives is to cut costs for individual businesses, then if a new and more efficient way to cut costs is found, co-operation may no longer be needed.

Arguably this is exactly what happened to the building societies in the 1980s when legislation was introduced enabling them to demutualise if the members voted in favour. If building societies in the 1980s had justified their role on the basis of providing an institution owned and run by normal people who benefit from and control it, it is unlikely that the offer of a small cash incentive (typically £500) would have enticed the members to vote for demutualisation. But, because building societies justified themselves to their membership on the basis of serving their economic interests – providing them with an account, a mortgage, interest and so on – as soon as what appeared to be a more efficient way of meeting their interests came along they opted for it.

This is not the only reason for the mutualisation of building societies, but it does illustrate the strategic risk in justifying co-operative (or in this case, mutual) ownership on the basis of serving self-interest.

To finish

I’d like to conclude with three things.

First: a recap. My point in writing this has been to clarify something that I think many of us know but haven’t taken the time think through fully. Explanations of why co-operation is a good thing tend to fall on one two justifications: either co-operation gives people dignity, autonomy and control over their lives, or it is a way for people to maximise their interests, or a mix of the two. Those which put the emphasis on the former social conception are making a strategic decision to position co-ops as an economic alternative whereas those which put the emphasis on the latter economic conception are making a strategic decision to position co-operation as one efficient way to maximise individual interests.

Second: a call to action. My call to action is for people promoting the co-operative model – whether campaign bodies, activists, national organisations, lobbyists, individual businesses – to give serious thought to whether they are using an economic or a social justification for co-operation. It matters, a lot. Their choice will impact upon how the co-operative model is positioned and could affect the long-term future and viability of the co-operative movement.

Finally: an opinion. I think, in the end, putting too much emphasis on the economic conception of co-operation is the biggest strategic risk to the co-operative movement.As long as co-operation is justified as a way to maximize self-interest in certain situations, it will always be susceptible to being superseded by other methods of maximising self-interest more effectively. And in a capitalist economy, when new technology is transforming the business landscape every few years, that is too big a risk to take.

This is not to say that the economic justification should be shelved or ignored. But it is to say that too much emphasis on co-operation as a means for maximising self-interest is a strategic risk that in the long-term may put the co-operative movement as a whole on a less solid foundation.