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.