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.

A European manifesto

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Cooperatives Europe’s lovely new manifesto (which I was lucky enough to help write) has some simple asks of MEP candidates.

What’s interesting is that they are similar to the asks of government that co-ops are making around the world. What co-ops need is a legislative framework that puts them on a equal footing with other forms of business, and increased awareness amongst entrepreneurs and those supporting business development and growth.

The manifesto is here: https://coopseurope.coop/sites/default/files/2014%20COOPERATIVES%20EUROPE%20MANIFESTO_lowres.pdf

Justifying co-operation

The co- operative movement has never settled on a justification for its member owned model of business.

The pioneers of the movement – Robert Owen, William King, the Rochdale Pioneers – seemed to see human dignity as the reason. By sharing profits more equally everyone is more likely to be able to live a decent life.

At the heart of this are values of equality, fairness, autonomy. In fact, international agreement on values and principles unite a global movement.

Today, though, when we justify co-operatives, we talk about far more instrumental goals rather than these values. We say things like:

– Co-operatives create economic stability because they are guided by long term member interests, not short term profits.

– Co-operatives are more productive because the employees benefit from the business’s successes

– Co-operatives are more profitable because workers and consumers are engaged

– Co-operatives do good things with their profits, supporting local communities or helping the environment

– Co-operating is a rational thing to do because it helps individuals achieve what they want

All of these arguments are risky because they depends on facts – and facts are tricky.

Co-operatives can create stability, but they are businesses like others and suffer from the vagaries of the market or mistaken expansion plans etc. See the UK’s Co-operative Bank for the latest example.

Co-operatives can be more productive or profitable. But for every business success there are ten micro enterprise co-operatives, with no ability or desire to grow.

Co-operation can be a rational way to maximise self interest. But only if the situation is right, and when the business environment incentivises non co-operative business, co-operation is likely to be the optimal strategy only occasionally.

Co-operatives do good social and environmental work. But so do many businesses, whether large businesses with huge CSR budgets or small ethical companies.

The point is that all these instrumental arguments justify co-operation on instrumental grounds as an instrumental means to some other tangible, easily grasped end that can be measured – co-operatives are good for business, they help individuals achieve, they do good work with their profits etc.

But all of them are let down by the facts.

So my suggestion: let’s stop reaching for instrumental economic goals as the justification for co-operation and go back to the values that, often unspoken, are and always have been at the heart of co-operation: equality, autonomy, fairness, dignity.

It’s the strongest justification for co-operation there is, but we just seem to keep overlooking it.

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.”

UK PLC?

UK PLC?

We tell ourselves a story about ourselves and ignore everything that doesn’t fit.

When we talk about the businesses in the UK economy, we generally talk about PLCs. UK PLC. You think business, you think Orange, Top Shop etc.

Just reading the Metro the other day, there were 8 business stories: 2 good stories about Plcs, 3 bad stories about Plcs, 1 good story about mutuals and 1 good story about an independent.

The point? There’s much more going on in the economy than the ups and downs of Plcs. There are independents and mutuals. Family owned businesses. A whole load of different ways of doing business that don’t register in the story we tell ourselves about the businesses in our economy.

In fact the majority of the jobs in the UK private sector are in SMEs, not PLCs.