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.