Hegemony and co-operative strategy

 The economic consensus of the last forty years is coming into question. Supporters of an alternative economy over which people have control need a strategy to get it established. Here’s a broad approach, based on what worked for the neoliberal economists over the last half a century and the concepts developed by the theorists Laclau and Mouffe. 

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on a small state and the extension of free market principles into all areas of life, is being brought into question like never before. The people who have been on the firing line of the reforms introduced by successive government are now raising objections in the few ways open to them – by voting for populist politicians and parties, like Trump and Le Pen, that supposedly promise the protection of the state. 

Many people – from Kim Phillips-Fein to George Monbiot – have noted that the success of neoliberalism in establishing itself so thoroughly stemmed in large part from neo-classical economics being developed as an intellectual model and an effective political device in a host of influential university departments and think tanks, meaning that it was easy for politicians like Thatcher and Reagan to pick up and implement the ideas. The thinking of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School was in this way transformed from a minority radical vision to a political and social consensus. 

It strikes me time and again that the co-operative sector, and more widely the idea of a commons-based or solidarity economy, is such a long, long away from here. Aside from occasional references by the likes of ResPublica or IPPR, and a few academics working in a few universities, there is a limited intellectual base behind the co-operative sector. Where there is research it is scattered and doesn’t form a body of evidence.

What the co-op sector needs to achieve is what the neo-liberal school managed: hegemony. This is an ambitious aim, and one that will take time, but it’s something we should be aiming for. 

One way to think about how to achieve this is with the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who developed a set of ideas or terms to understand what a political strategy to achieve hegemony might look like in there book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. In light of recent events Mouffe has reiterated some of this in an article arguing for a left populism to counter the right wing populism gaining ground. There are three core elements. 

First of all we need to acknowledge that our aim is to some extent to achieve ‘hegemony’. This is term coined by Antonio Gramsci and developed by Laclau and Mouffe to refer to the way in which certain ideas and certain patterns of behaviour are conformed to and consented to, regardless of whether or not it is in the interest of those consenting to do so. It’s a form of power, but one that works precisely without coercive force or explicit domination. To put it in other words, it’s an ideology, a way of seeing the world, that people use. 

Second, they point out that there are ‘empty signifiers’ in our political discourse that need filling. What the neo-classical school of economists managed to achieve is hegemony around certain concepts and ideas that are core to modern societies but are contestable: individualism, government, democracy, freedom, equality, fairness, and so on. What this resulted in was a widespread agreement that people and businesses ought to be free get on with their lives left to their own devices, that government intervention hampered this, that fairness and equality were about having the opportunity to flourish, among other things. 

We need to attach a different meaning to these signifiers: that democracy is more than just a vote, but means having a say over the businesses that affect our lives, for example; that freedom to pursue our own ends in meaningless without equality that makes that possible; that fairness means that everyone is treated with dignity, not left to their own devices… The specifics we can decide; the general point is that we need a different meaning for empty signifiers. 

Third, a political strategy requires us to build a ‘chain of equivalences’. Neo-classical economists achieved hegemony not on their own but by forming alliances with a series of like-minded groups: traditional conservatives, libertarians, business bodies, politicians looking for a different message to resonate.  

It’s vital that we do the same. There are a host of groups and movements arguing for an economy and society in which people have voice and power, and in which there is greater equality of outcome and meaningful freedom. Tax justice campaigners, environmentalists, open source advocates, social enterprise proponents, many traditional political party members and of course co-ops. We need to build a coalition that recognises we are all arguing for a particular way of organising society. 

So, how do we do all this? What are the first steps? That is the hard question, but here are a few thoughts: 

  • Build our intellectual base. Let’s list out and bring together the range of academics working on heterodox economics and social policy that support a more co-operative society, identify key themes and begin to ensure we can present a systematic and evidenced case. 
  • Build our political base. Let’s identify where our current political support is and what the potential is for developing it. We should aim to put this vision of a different economy and society at the heart of a political vision, whether that’s among political parties or the host of thinktanks and policy wonks that inform so much of policy.
  • Build our coalition base. Let’s identify a possible coalition of supporters who we can ally with in order to develop a wider movement of people for a different kind of economy. We can’t be purist about this; we need to find a broad sweep of like-minded partners to campaign with.
  • Build our message. And let’s identify the kinds of messages that not only the political base but also the people more widely want to hear. Many of those people voting for Brexit and the like are the most disenfranchised by the neo-liberal, global economy, yet they are also the least likely to support the kind of economy we are advocating. We need to find the message that works for them. 

This is not the only thing we need to be doing. We need grassroots organising on the ground of the kind we’re seeing on things like co-ops for creative workers, community control of local assets and so on. But achieving this cultural hegemony is also crucial to being about change of a wider scale. It isn’t easy, it will take time, but we need to start acting on this now if we want to see a different kind of country. 


Can giving people everyday power help stem the rise of reactionary politics?

Economic powerlessness is fuelling discontent and the rise of reactionary politics of which Trump’s election is the latest manifestation. The causes being cited are big— globalisation, neoliberalism, immigration — but I wonder if the solution is to think small, to give people more power over the things in the economy that affect their lives noticeably and directly on a daily basis.

Just a few days ago, the apparently remarkable happened: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Or at least it would have been remarkable if something similar hadn’t preceded it in the United Kingdom a few months earlier: the vote to leave the European Union.

Now, everywhere you turn, people are explaining why it happened, explaining that the rise of right wing populism comes down to the large numbers of people who feel disconnected from the economy, out of control of key parts of their lives and lacking in opportunities to prosper.

The left behinds

Take the UK to start with, where the narrative is more established.

Theresa May, on becoming Prime Minister, gave a speech on the inequalities and injustices that are present in Britain — ones based on race, class, ethnicity, geography, and so on. The big issue, she said, is to ‘give people control over things that matter to them’ (their housing, their work, their kids’ education) and create a ‘Britain that works for all’.

Shortly after that, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published an in-depth report on the people who voted for Brexit, characterising them as those who had been ‘left behind’ — primarily people who lack the skills and opportunities to progress and prosper. And more recently the left-wing think tank the New Economic Foundation re-branded itself as a campaign to ‘build a new economy where people really take control.’

Over in the US the same points are being made. Bronwen Maddox puts it down, like many, to the anger of largely white Americans who feel left behind by an economy that offers them only stagnating wages and no opportunities. Alongside the significant number of people who didn’t vote at all, they were a big cause of Trump’s victory.

It’s no surprise that Michael Moore’s ‘Five reasons why Trump will win’ is now being widely cited for it’s accuracy. As he put it:

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England — broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here.These are just examples of many instances of a new discourse that has emerged around the need for an economy that gives people control and takes everyone with them.

The first notable thing about this, I think, is that it has come so late!

Inequality has been on the rise for decades. Researchers, from academics to the World Bank, have been debating the ‘losers of globalisation’ thesis for decades, which holds that the rise of European far right parties, the increasing social conservatism manifested in the like of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, and for that matter the attraction to fundamentalist religious politics the world over, are all symptoms of economic inequalities that lead to some people lacking control, voice perceiving unfairness and finding an answer in a reactionary politics that aims to hand back power to ‘their’ people.

There are complexities and nuances to the debate on this idea, as Cass Mudde who has been studying this area for decades, wrote in the Huffington Post recently about Brexit, and pointed out in relation to the Trump vote too.

Nevertheless, Brexit was in some way an ‘event’ as Alain Badiou sometimes uses it: an occurrence that reveals some of the underlying truths that had been hitherto obscured (see his ‘Politics as a Truth Procedure’, in Metapolitics, 2005).

Global power

If part of the cause of the rise of more reactionary sentiments we see is the powerlessness that people feel in the global economy, then perhaps part of the solution is to find ways for people to have more power over it.

This sounds like a big ask. The ‘economy’ is the sum-total of billions of interactions and transactions. And in a market economy, as we have seen time and time again, attempts by governments or economists or traders to understand the dynamics of the economy, much less direct it, often fail.
Deeper levels of government intervention might offer an alternative way to reign the economy, in but it won’t necessarily provide people other than politicians with any power in the economy. In other words, if people feel powerless in the economy, attempts at the macro level to give them power are probably not a compelling solution.

Everyday power

However, while the economy is big, the powerlessness experienced by people is every day. It’s the feeling that no matter how hard you work and save, you’ll never get on the housing market. Or that the decisions made by your boss are stupid and make it harder for you to do your job. Or that you haven’t got the time to get better qualifications or do something you would enjoy because you’re so busy working and looking after the kids. Or that you end up travelling to do your shopping or buying everything online because your local high street is a parade of bookies and takeaways.

So perhaps rather than concentrating on the macro we should find ways to give people more control over the everyday. If people can control and have a voice over their workplace, the local housing market or what happens on their high street, for example, then the feeling of powerlessness may be limited. And if people had ownership of the assets and enterprises that generated profit — their workplace or local commercial developments for example — then that would be a step toward reducing the inequalities of wealth and opportunity that drive the disaffection.

This is not to say that giving people more power over the everyday is the entire solution — inequality plays a big role in driving discontent and narrowing that will require other actions too; likewise, questions about the movement of capital and labour need to be asked and answered in order to affect some of the global economic trends.

But alongside these, perhaps an important way to stem the rise of anti-globalisation reactionary politics is to introduce more ways for people to have meaningful control over portions of it, and it is everyday control that can deliver that best. This means giving workers, customers, local people a say; it means more co-ops and community owned assets; it means new ways to give people a vote on local economic issues.

Just as James C Scott has written about the everyday resistance by people who are marginalised and dominated by others, often unseen by their oppressors, so we can talk about an everyday power that people can assume in order to bring elements of the economy under control (eg, his Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 1990).

There’s no lack of experiments in co-operative and common ownership. People have been doing this stuff for decades — centuries in fact — but always at the margins. The issue is not what precise mechanisms can give people ownership and control over the parts of the economy that affect them. There are plenty to choose from.

The issue is will, both political will an wider recognition of how it can make a difference.

If we want to see these approaches spread more widely then they need support — with rhetoric from public voices, with a strategy to help them spread, and with practical action — to lift them from the margins, from isolated examples, to a central way to give people everyday power in the economy.

How the co-op movement can find allies

This is a written version of a short presentation and exercise I did yesterday with Co-operatives East. It offers a strategy or framework for identifying and prioritising potential fellow travellers that co-operative organisations could team up with. Thought I’d post it up here to see if it’s useful . . .

 When I first got involved in the co-op movement I didn’t do it because I thought the co-operative model was an end in itself.

It was a means to an end. This will be different for different people but for me that end was, and largely still is, an economy run for and by the people, one in which we have control over the business and public institutions that exert such a powerful and undemocratic influence over our lives.

Co-operatives are one important route to doing this. But they are not the only one, and there are a whole range of similar and allied organisations – community run organisations, artist collectives, user-led mental health groups, the online peer-to-peer movement, and many others, all of which have similar goals.

But when you get involved heavily in a movement, an organisation or what Seth Godin calls a ‘tribe’, it’s easy to forget this – to focus on the rituals and intricacies of that tribe, to get engrossed in the details and forget the bigger purpose that made this important in the first place.

The co-operative sector is as guilty of this as any other – we, by which I mean those who are active and play an organising role – spend a lot of time debating legal forms, governance and member engagement, but in doing so easily forget the purpose, the reason we were involved in the first place.

So, what I want to do here – and what I’ve done periodically in the past – is to try to stand back from the co-operative movement as we know it and think about what other organisations, networks and groups are out there who have similar purposes.

I don’t have any simple answers, but what I hope to offer is a framework for discussion.


The reason for doing this is two-fold.

The first is for reasons of organisational strategy. I was asked to talk at Co-operatives East, a membership body, about reaching co-operators rather than co-operatives, in order to get people at Co-operatives East thinking about how it, as a regional grouping of co-ops, can best meet its purpose of promoting the co-op economy.

Should it open up its membership to people interested in co-operation? Who are these people? And how can it reach them? This is obviously not just of relevance to Co-ops East but also to other co-operative campaign bodies more widely.

The second reason is about campaign strategy. Successful campaigns are nearly always coalitions rather than single-interests. A campaign to promote the co-operative economy could have marginal successes on its own; a campaign to create an economy run for the people by the people, that involves co-ops, social enterprises, development trusts, the online peer to peer movement, the commons movement, and so on, is much more likely to have a success, assuming a common purpose and message can be found.

In the UK, the Social Economy Alliance is an excellent example of this – it brings together social enterprises, co-ops, trading charities and others and combines their weight to lobby government for common asks. In the US the New Economy Coalition is a broader coalition of organisations involved in grassroots community and economic development, from co-ops to community organisations.

The scale of co-operation

So, what’s the best way to think about, and discuss which networks – which other tribes – are closely aligned with the co-operative movement?

One way is to take the ‘scale of co-operation’ proposed by Co-operatives UK a couple of years back in its publications on practical tools for identifying co-operatives.

The scale looks at two axes: the member ownership axis, which is based on how far an organisation has open membership, how far the members control the business and how far they benefit from it (basically, the first three co-operative principles); and the co-operative ethos axis, based on whether the organisation is autonomous, educates members, co-operates with others and has a community purpose (the last four co-operative principles).

You can see an application of it, from the Co-operatives UK publication, here:


Co-operatives UK developed some questions to ask to help plot where an organisation fits on the scale, and we can see a range of positions on the scale, from Tesco through to Suma, based on this. It provides a broad, but useful, way to think about which organisations are close to the co-operative model in terms of both ownership and ethos, and which are less so.


A second way is to map the networks, groups or ‘tribes’ around the co-operative movement. I’d initially done this to look at where there were overlaps between the purpose of the groups and the co-operative movement in order to identify networks on social media where we, in the co-op movement, could make synergies and links.

But you can also use the scale of co-operation to structure this in order to see which networks are closest to the co-operative movement, and which are further away.

Here’s an example:


What we see here from this rough application is that the commons movement, development trusts and community energy are closest to the co-operative movement, with other organisations such as open business or user-led services further away.


What does this tell us? I think this is a framework to determine which networks or tribes, or which individual organisations or businesses, are close enough to the co-operative movement for closer working and which you should therefore prioritise.

It’s very much a working idea rather than a complete one – there are many more networks to consider, and the ones that have been considered here might not be the right ones, and you can drill down into more detail.

But I think it provides a useful starting point for discussing who could be useful partners in campaigns or, if like Co-operatives East, you are looking to widen membership, who should be eligible for membership.

Once you’ve used this as a mapping exercise and identified who you should focus on, there is then a whole further set of questions around what you want to do with them and what the best way of connecting with them is.

But hopefully this framework can help you understand the networks or organisations on which you should focus your energies.


Get into groups to discuss where you would focus energies if you were opening up membership or looking for partners outside the formal co-operative movement. I would like you to:

  1. Identify the kinds of organisations that are allied with, but just outside, the co-op movement.
  2. Plot them on the scale of co-operation below
  3. Identify where you would focus your energies in terms of recruiting new members, highlighting the three that would be at the core of your strategy


Economic democracy quote #1

A Preface to Democratic Theory

Here’s a great paragraph on why economic democracy – giving people control and ownership of businesses – is a key way of creating greater equality.

Most interestingly, this is from Robert Dahl, a prominent democratic theorist whose big idea was the need for polyarchy rather than democracy, by which he means elites competing with one another for votes based on different interest groups and positions – a situation not that dissimilar from what we have now. Hardly the radical then.

As Dahl puts it:

” . . . differences in ownership and control of enterprises, while certainly not the origin of all forms in inequality, are deeply implicated in inequalities of many kinds: in esteem, respect, and status, in control over one’s daily life, in income and wealth and all the opportunities associated with them, in life chances for children and adults alike. It seems to me scarcely open to doubt that a society with significantly greater equality in owning and controlling economic enterprises would produce profoundly greater equality than exists in America today.”

Robert Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy, 1985, pp5-6

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.

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 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.