Co-ops in popular culture #1: The Wire

New Day Co-op

The ways that co-ops are represented in TV, film, books and the media play a fundamental role in shaping how people view them. So, this is the start of a series of occasional blogs on co-ops in popular culture, based on something I wrote a month or so ago. I’m starting with the New Day Co-op in The Wire.

The Wire, for those who didn’t watch it originally, and haven’t watched it yet, was an award winning five series drama written by David Simon for HBO. It’s a fantastically nuanced series following the drugs business in Baltimore, with its intricate links to the police, politicians, business, unions and the media. Nobody comes out untouched, very few innocent. It’s an indictment of capitalist democracy in modern America.

In series three the main Baltimore dealers form a co-op under the charismatic leadership of Stringer Bell. Called the New Day Co-op, its aim was to maximise profits and minimise problems for the members by dividing up areas and bulk buying ‘product’ together.

The co-op was one member, one vote. The rival dealers met regularly to deal with issues. And, although driven purely by self-interest, the co-op proved remarkably sustainable, until it is effectively demutualised by the power-hungry young Marlo once Stringer is out of the way in the final series. It goes without saying that there’s something quite comical, too, about a bunch of dealers forming a co-op to work together.

There’s a thorough Wikipedia page on the New Day Co-op here and the Urban Dictionary has a nice little explanation:

 “A cooperative movement started by Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe in HBO’s The Wire. The New Day Co-op is a loose coalition of drug dealers in Baltimore, MD, who share profits, protection, product, and turf. Stringer and Prop Joe realized that if the gangs stop killing each other over corners and drugs, there will be more money to go around for everyone with less bodies dropping, and thus less police attention.”

Here’s Stringer Bell proposing the formation of the co-op:

Here’s the members using the meeting to discuss business and issues around the supply of heroin:

And here’s Marlo effectively demutualisng the co-op:

What does the New Day Co-op say about co-ops? What kind of ideas do people get about co-ops from the Wire?

  1. Co-ops can endure. Despite everything – the police, the disagreements, the violence of the street – the co-op kept going. In seasons three to five the co-op plays a major role, reducing violent crime for a time and enabling Baltimore’s dealers to challenge incoming dealers from New York by working together. It’s only towards the end of the final season that Marlo destroys the co-op.
  2. Co-ops have charismatic leaders. There might be a dozen or so members of the co-op, but we only ever meet the charismatic and powerful leaders who sway it: its founder, Stringer Bell; Proposition Jo, whose skills is diplomacy and bringing people together; and Marlo, who originally tries to cross the co-op, joins when he sees the benefit and eventually destroys it for the same reason.
  3. Co-ops are based on self-interest. The New Day Co-op is formed entirely in order to help its members make more money from the exploitation of others whilst reducing the things that get in the members’ way. Anyone watching the show will come away with the view that co-ops are about no more than self-interest. There may be discussion and voting, but in the end the co-op is portrayed as a kind of democratic cartel serving just its members.
  4. Finally, and maybe unique to the Wire, co-ops are part of a more complex story of corruption, collusion and cartels. A major underlying theme in The Wire is that an intricate networks of politicians, the media, the police, dealers and business people are colluding to take the wealth from the people. There are always exceptions, but on the whole there are institutional structures through which the few benefit and most don’t. The New Day Co-op is just another of these.

So, in the end, what does The Wire tell people about co-ops: they can endure but are ultimately cartels driven by self-interest and charismatic leaders.

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Everyday and transformational co-operation

For some time now, I’ve been trying to find a way to characterise two different kinds of co-operation: one that is a constant of our social life, another that aims to bring about social change.

Having thought about in different ways, I wonder if the simplest way to express it is to talk about everyday co-operation and transformational co-operation.

Everyday co-operation

Everyday co-operation is the idea that life is underpinned by instinctive and generally unacknowledged co-operation between individuals: from tacit agreements about letting one another past on pavements or the unconscious decision not to hoard the spoons at work to the reciprocity that allows people to trust one another, lend books to one another, and so on.

Everyday co-operation is an essential part of everyday life. Many of those people studying the ‘science of co-operation’ – an area of study now encompassing evolutionary biology, game theory, economics, sociology, political science and much else besides – tell us that the reason for everyday co-operation is because people are rational and self-interested, and therefore will pursue the strategy that best realises their interests.

Short-term it might be most beneficial to hoard spoons, not return a book your friend lent you or renege on an informal agreement with a colleague. But long-term these strategies will backfire, so it makes sense to co-operate. It’s what also called reciprocal altruism and I’ve referred to as economic co-operation.*

This idea – that it’s in the long-term best interests of people to co-operate and work together – is not only an important part of the functioning of society, arguably awareness of it is also behind some recent business thinking: the increasing interest in employee ownership as a way of engaging and increasing the productivity of workers, for example, Michael Porter’s concept of businesses delivering ‘shared value’ to suppliers, customers and staff, Unilever’s ‘enlightened capitalism’ or innovations that involve customers or users in ‘co-producing’ a good or service.

Everyday co-operation is everywhere and pretty much non-controversial. It’s a good thing. It makes things run smoothly. And it makes our lives better than a world where short-term self-interest ruled all (which would probably be “nasty, brutish and short” as Thomas Hobbes put it in 1651). Few people would disagree that the world needs everyday co-operation.

Transformational co-operation

The other idea of co-operation is transformational co-operation. This is a rarer form of co-operation. It takes places when people try to transform their workplace, or their community, in a way that enables people to work together in a fairer and more equal way.

It takes many forms: graduates starting a worker co-op to take control of their jobs, workers collectively recuperating their factory, locals starting a community supported farm to take control of their food, students buying a building together in order create a housing co-op. It might also go beyond formal ‘co-operative’ structures and include arts collectives trying to control their work, local people campaigning to keep a park in community ownership or even a political movement aiming to give a group of people democratic control over their area (I’m thinking of the Zapatistas in Mexico, or even the Occupy movement).

Transformational co-operation is based on what Hilary Wainright calls transformational politics, where “self-organized citizens . . . resist and transform” power relations, whether that’s the state, in the economy or in society more widely. Transformational politics, she says “can be used against capital and in ways that can facilitate self- organization and support democratic and decentralized management of public resources, including as ‘commons’.”

For her, transformational politics is different from two other political strategies: revolution and reform: transformation seeks to create alternative institutions and practices within the existing system rather than gradually changing the system or trying to overthrow it.

As I’ve quoted elsewhere, the aim of the original Rochdale Pioneers was not to open a shop but to start to create a better world within the existing one. They were, in other words, co-operating in order to bring about transformational social change.

As GDH Cole puts it in A Century of Co-operation:

“If, in 1844 or some time afterwards, a well-informed Englishman or Sctotsman has been asked to say what he understood by the word ‘Co-operation’ . . . 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.”

Transformational co-operation is at the heart of those parts of the co-operative movement (and, in fact, the wider movements for the commons and economic democracy) that explicitly aim to bring democracy into the economy, that want to give people equal and collective control of resources, that see co-operation as a challenge to capitalism, and that subscribe to what is sometimes called ‘cooperativism’.

The task

In light of the above, there are three things that I think the co-operative movement could be doing.

1. Those within the existing co-op movement that advocate transformational co-operation could begin to distinguish it from everyday co-operation and encourage those within the movement to recognise that co-operation is not just a business strategy, but that co-ops can help play a transformative role.

2. It could identify and seek alliances with other movements and groups practicing transformational co-operation. The commons movements, the online peer-to-peer movement and activists aiming for more participatory economic democracy are very closely aligned.

3. It could campaign more widely for transformational co-operation. Rather, than simply limiting itself to advocating for co-operative business, the movement and its allies could begin to campaign on the basis that co-operation allows people, together, to control the things that affect them. It needs to show people that co-operating is not just a way to ensure our existing economy and society function well, but that it is a way to that people can take control of our lives.

 

* In fact, I think there’s more to everyday co-operation than this. Social expectations, culture, norms, discourses and so on arguably determine how we act as much as calculated self-interest. Rightly, I think, John Elster points out in his 1989 Social Norms and Economic Theory that we may “be guided by instrumental rationality” but our behaviour is equally “dictated by social norms” – “both norms and self-interest enter into the proximate explanations of action.”

The reality of jobs and growth – a view from a bike

600px-SalfordSkyline

Yesterday I spent my lunch break on a bit of a cycle around the border of Manchester city centre and Salford. I didn’t see anything special, or remarkable, but learnt a lot, I think, about the economy, jobs, work and growth in Manchester’s apparently booming economy.

Building work and infrastructure development were everywhere in the centre of Manchester, it was hard to move; the cars were snarled up and people were busily hurrying between work and shops.

The inner suburbs of Salford, down Liverpool Road into Pendleton, were different: shops few and far between, the building projects were on freeze, people were on the streets, but just walking, or in groups talking, hanging out, not rushing around.

Pendleton precinct was busier, apparently overflowing with supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl and a Tesco Extra, all in one small space, competing on price for the same customers. Very different from fifteen years ago when I lived here, with just one small Tesco available to people without transport.

The Salford University strip was all-but abandoned in the summer, save for lone international students; and the old performing arts building that previously brought music (mostly a crash of drums) to a corner of Lower Broughton has now closed, moved to a state-of-the-art facility at Salford Quays.

Greater Manchester, apparently, is the only city in the UK that grew its economy as much as London in the decade before the recession. But a short ride like this, around the Manchester – Salford border, tell us more than growth figures can.

It’s not just the startling difference between the glass high rises of the centre and the concrete high rises of Pendleton. Or the difference between the busy workers of the city centre and the slower pace of the Salford streets.

It’s more than this: in the heart of city, in this shiny model of regeneration and growth, the faces of people hurrying to and from work, nipping out for a sandwich, off to the shops of a lunch break, tell all: Manchester is not a city of high powered jobs and executive lunches groaning under the weight of economic growth; it’s one of mundane office work and plastic sandwiches. Some might be enjoying the spoils, but for most Manchester’s is a service sector economy where growth has little meaning for the people with the jobs, let alone for those without.