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.

Is this the age of inequality?


There has always been a gulf between the haves and have nots, yet rarely has it been such a political issue. What’s going on?

Take wealth inequality. Across great swathes of history, from medieval France to the mills of industrial Britain, the wealth and living conditions of the aristocracy and the religious and financial elite were incalculably better than that of the average worker.

Or take political inequality. Often tied to the above inequalities, it was accepted that some had the right to rule, while others could only serve. From the divine right of kings to the right of the propertied class to vote, the hierarchy in political power and voice was often unquestioned.

Or, even, take racism. In the US slavery was as common place as wealth inequality in Britain and until the mid-twentieth century inequalities based on race was not only publicly acceptable but state sanctioned.

Today, though, inequality has become the issue underpinning so much political debate, from the rise of anti-immigration parties to anti-police riots erupting in US cities to anti-business sentiment.

Inequality, inequality, inequality

Some of the most influential pieces of economics analysis of last decade, for example, have focused on inequality. Thomas Pickety’s Capital is symbolic of this, but the work of Stiglitz and Krugman also point to the rising inequality and the impact it has on society.

Following the financial crash there was widespread vilification of the bankers and politicians, whose actions precipitated the crash that resulted in public bailouts of private institutions, financial troubles for millions and long-term austerity programmes across the West.

Issues like tax avoidance, executive pay and trust in business has become the big issues with which the public is concerned, while activists occupied the streets and squares of our cities under the slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn may not be centre ground politics, but their rise at this particular time reflects a desire among many of the left to redress the balance in our economy and politics.

Across Europe we have seen the emergence of left wing movements (like Occupy and the Podemos) and the surge of right wing populists (such as UKIP, the front National and Donald Trump) whose slogans and, indeed, appeal are based on mobilising groups angry about inequality against those perceived as better off. Indeed, as research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation unearthed, many of those who voted for the UK to leave the EU have been ‘left behind’ and don’t have the skills or opportunities to make it. That’s why Theresa May, in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister, ran through all the inequalities she saw in society that needed to be addressed.

The debate over immigration across Europe is also about inequality. On the one hand are those arguing that those in developed economies compared to those from elsewhere have such advantages that we need to open our borders to immigrants. On the other are those arguing that people in Western countries are already struggling and immigrants are compounding this.

Bringing all this together – and in fact prompting this blog – is the headline of the right wing UK paper, the Daily Mail, today (22 Sept) saying ‘Spare us from these bleeding heart luvvies like the Clooneys who lecture us on migrants while jetting off from mansion to mansion.’

Why inequality now?

So why is inequality such an issue now, despite it being something we have lived with for centuries, often at more dramatic levels?

There are probably multiple reasons. One, and the simplest, is modern communication. Unlike any time previously, nearly everyone is faced with inequality every day. They see it on TV, in the paper, on social media, in the street. Few people can be unaware that there are vast differences in wealth, assets and power.

At the same time, as quality of life and education improve for the vast majority of people, so the ability and time to reflect on what is going around them increases. As such, people are able to look around and see that others are doing better for themselves. This discontent and jealousy is what Alan de Botton refers to as ‘status anxiety’ and Oliver James as ‘affluenza.’

Ironically, the psychology of capitalism, in which people become more aspirational as they become richer, has fuelled this. People want more and more, and as such they want more from life – better experiences, better stuff – and as they acquire it they quickly move on to wanting the next thing. In this sense capitalism itself creates both the inequalities and the discontent with those inequalities. Capitalism is its own ‘gravedigger’ as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto.

And arguably this is reinforced by the reality of the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity. We are told in different ways that we live in meritocratic societies in which people are on a level playing field and therefore create their own luck and life chances. This, in principle, ought to mean that people view any equalities as a fair outcome – those who have wealth, assets, a good life deserve it because they worked for it. In practice, though, cards are generally stacked in some people’s favours not others. By virtue of the luck of where you’re born, when and into which family, people’s life chances vary radically, even before you factor in natural ability and talent. The disconnect between the rhetoric of equality of opportunity that is so important for a liberal society and the grim truth of inequality makes the gulf between the have and have nots a glaring issue.

These are just hastily jotted down thoughts. I know there is evidence to back up some of this which I haven’t explored fully or cited, and I know there will be evidence to contradict it, and the next step might be to explore some of that.

The point is that, perhaps because status and merit are such strong motivations in our lives it is perhaps not surprising that inequality is becoming the issue that defines so many of the political debates today. In this sense, we seem to be living in an age of inequality.


Precarious work is everywhere 

Precarious work is everywhere 

I’ve just finished reading Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: the Government of the Precarious – a theory heavy but thought provoking book on capitalism and the politics of work.

Her basic argument is that precariousness is part of the modern economy and working life, bolstered by government policy around welfare and pensions which intensifies that sense of precariousness. It’s not just migrant workers on the one hand or young workers on the other, that are in a state of precarious work; but they and everyone in and out of work have insecure and precarious work, now that short term contracts, temping, zero hours, portfolio careers and the like have become the norm.
Drawing on Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ she suggest this isn’t simply imposed on people from external forces (the state, the market, business etc) but that people govern their own behaviour and conduct in light of this precariousness. Hence in a workplace, solidarity – if it ever existed – has been replaced by people developing their reputation and personal brand so as to compete with others for promotions in insecure jobs. The cultivation of this way of conducting yourself in public, where you are always in some ways working, is even stronger amongst freelancers, whether they chose the freelance option or not. For them, the division between work and leisure breaks down.
Finally, though, she sees – again following Foucault, this time his idea that power always creates resistance – that precariousness is not all bad: it creates problems but also the possibility of alternatives. She draws attention to movements of precarious workers who are identifying what they have in common and creating networks and movements to support themselves, with some reference to EuroMayday.
The book is heavy on theory and light on practical detail, but this sense of a new movement, of new possibilities emerging, reminds me of the Freelancers Union in the United States, which has of thousands of freelancers in membership. With their lovely little tag line ‘a union of the unaffiliated’ they have a good description of the network which on the hand praises the possibility of new and freer work whilst at the same recognising the drawbacks of freelancing.

Freelancers Union believes all workers should have the freedom to build meaningful, connected, and independent lives – backed by a system of mutual and public support.

Nearly one in three working Americans is an independent worker. That’s 53 million people – and growing. We’re lawyers and nannies. We’re graphic designers and temps. We’re the future of the economy.
Freelancers Union serves the needs of this growing independent sector. We’re bringing freelancers together to build smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems. We call it New Mutualism. You can call it the future.

We’re helping the diverse self-employed community build a powerful voice – in politics and in markets. We connect freelancers to group-rate benefit.

Stories of work, control and dignity

Whilst the Co-operative Bank saga has rolled on over the past week, I’ve also come across some stories of what co-operation and mutualism are all about: preserving jobs, giving people some control over their lives and restoring their dignity.

There’s a fantastic article by John Restakis on the takeover of a factory in Greece by its workers who, mirroring what happened in Argentina a decade ago, are opening the doors of their closed factory and beginning manufacturing again.

In Argentina itself, a recent look at what happened to the occupied factories a decade on reveals that around 180 factories employing 10,000 people have survived, as well as inspiring a co-operative renaissance in the country.

There’s a new book by Dan Hancox on the village of Marinelada in Spain, another European country being crippled by the financial crisis, where they have created a collectively-run community, accompanied by jobs, hope and solidarity.

And there’s a whole host of stories in Anarchists in the Boardroom, a new crowdsourced book by a Liam Barrington-Bush, that looks at the organisations adopting non-hierarchical ways of running themselves in order to be more human.

Thanks to Rebecca Harvey, Kate Whittle and Julian Dobson for the links.

Why the Co-operative Bank’s problems matter

So, the Co-operative Bank’s rescue bid – which involved a partial flotation on the stock exchange to raise capital whilst The Co-operative Group retained around 70% ownership – has failed.

Following very difficult negotiations, it now looks like the majority of shares in the Bank will be held by institutions, with The Co-operative Group retaining just 30% ownership.

There is – and will continue to be – an inquest into the causes of the problems that led to this. Hubris, failed expansion plans, disengaged members, executive failings and much else will surely turn out to be factors.

But what perhaps hasn’t been said, in simple terms. why it matters. For what it’s worth here, I think, is why it matters.

To society. The Co-operative Bank has been arguably the biggest force for good in the UK banking sector for the last 20 years – a prominent ethical bank that led the way on ethical investment and sustainability. Without it there will be less of an ethical counterpoint to standard banking practices.

To customers. The Co-operative Bank provided an alternative for customers, offering them an accessible mainstream bank where they could feel good about what their money was being used for. There are other ethical banks, but all are small and niche; there may be no easily accessible alternative anymore.

To co-operatives. The Co-operative Bank was perhaps the defining brand of the co-operative sector in the UK – when people think about the word co-operative they think about an ethical leader. In the short to medium term, this association will be damaged by the Bank’s problems.

To the economy. The tragic unfolding of events stem from a deeper problem – that the institutions governing banks and business favour one model of banking, despite the fact that the model has been shown to fail since 2008. Specifically, in this case, Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the Bank was partly a consequence of the rating agency ignoring the capital available to The Co-operative Bank because it was owned by a much larger Co-operative Group. A major catalyst for these problems was the blinkered view of acceptable banking practice.

The Co-operative Bank and the co-operative economy

Until a month ago, when the Co-operative Bank’s problems began to surface, it was regularly said that co-operatives are enjoying a renaissance. A new report on the co-operative sector shows that the recent difficulties at the Bank should be seen as an anomaly, not an example of the UK’s co-operative economy.

There are two arguments forwarded as to why co-operatives are enjoying a renaissance. First, customers are turning to known, trusted businesses and co-operatives exemplify this, both in the UK and elsewhere. Second, co-operatives are showing stronger financial resilience because they are not owned by outside investors and therefore are able to think long term rather than bow to short term shareholder pressure.

Both are simplifications of a complex business landscape, but as shown in Co-operatives UK’s new report,Homegrown: The UK Co-operative Economy 2013, both contain kernels of truth.

The recent revelations about the Co-operative Bank – which pulled out of a major deal to buy Lloyds bank branches, was subsequently downgraded by Moody’s to ‘junk’ status and then revealed a capital hole of £1.5 billion that resulted in a partial stock market flotation – has put both of these into question.

The Co-operative Bank is, after all, an iconic UK co-operative brand with very high levels of trust precisely because it is a mutually owned bank. Although it is a small part of the co-operative sector, accounting for only about 6% of the sector’s turnover, the knock on effect of the Bank’s high profile problems for other co-operative and mutual businesses are potentially huge.

Homegrown, though, shows that regardless of whether or not the Bank’s problems are significant as reported in the press, we must not extrapolate from the Bank to the wider co-operative sector.

– Co-operatives, the annual report shows, have grown year on year since the start of the credit crunch. Since 2008 turnover has grown by 23%, the number of members by 36%, and the number of co-operatives by 28%. The sector is growing at a startling rate in a terrible economic climate.

– It shows that trust in co-operatives is high. 52% of people describe co-operatives as trusted, whilst only 7% – yes 7! – say the same of PLCs.

– It shows that this can’t be down to one or two businesses. There are over 6,000 co-operative businesses. High profile examples like The Co-operative Group and John Lewis, but other also other large yet less well known businesses like Milk Link, First Milk, Midcounties Co-operative, Unimer, and many others.

– And it shows that co-operatives aren’t working in boom industries – the vast majority of the co-operative sector is made up of retailers and farmers, hardly two sectors you’d put money on to thrive over the last few years.

Clearly, co-operatives are no panacea for a struggling economy. They need to compete, financing growth is difficult, they suffer from many of the management issues other businesses have. The Co-operative Bank illustrates that.

But even the Financial Times, one of the papers most critical of the Co-operative Bank’s bid for expansion, recognised that the Co-operative Bank is an anomaly, not an example of the co-operative economy:

“Co-operative businesses grew in number, turnover and jobs last year, underlining the movement’s resurgence despite the travails of the Co-operative Group.”