How do you justify co-operatives? Or, two concepts of co-operation

When someone asks you why co-operatives are a good thing what do you say? Do you talk about social change and economic alternatives? Or do you talk about productivity and engagement? And, when you do, what are you really saying about the idea of co-operation?

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with the justification for co-operatives. So, finally, I’ve decided to take a detailed look at the philosophical ideas that underpin arguments for co-operatives. This extended blog or essay aims to highlight something that I think is interesting, but I’ll explain it in a few bullets for those who are short on time:

  • Explanations of why co-operation is a good thing tend to fall on one of two justifications: either co-operation gives people dignity, autonomy and control over their lives, or it is a way for people to maximise their individual interests, or a mix of the two.
  • Those which put the emphasis on the former social justification are making a strategic decision to position co-ops as an economic alternative. This makes it harder to sell to business leaders, conventional policy makers and business journalists, but elevates co-operatives above being a business model and makes it a movement for economic change.
  • Those which put the emphasis on the latter economic justification are making a strategic decision to position co-operation as an efficient way to maximise individual interests, like productivity gains or costs savings, within the existing market economy. This makes it more acceptable and more likely to go ‘mainstream’ in the current economy, but is at risk of being superseded by other more effective methods for achieving productivity, cost savings and other interests.
  • I conclude with a call to action for those advocating the co-operative model: to think about the long-term implications of your how you choose to justify co-operation.

The extended blog or essay is below. It’s a work in process and I’d welcome comments from people who feel so inclined.


The social concept of co-operation

When we look at the different ways that co-operatives are explained and justified we can, I think, see two concepts or ideas of co-operation at work. This dichotomy is particularly strong in the UK, where I am based and which I know best, but I think applies more widely.

One justification, generally found amongst the more radical wing of the co-op movement in the UK today, but perhaps used more frequently internationally, is based around the idea that co-operation is an end in itself, intimately bound up with others values like dignity, autonomy, control, freedom and equality. Co-operation is something we should do because it is part of what moral philosophers from Aristotle onwards have called the ‘good life’.

The UK’s Radical Routes, which describes itself as a network of radical housing co-ops, worker co-ops and social centres committed to positive social change, express the idea in their slogan:

Homes without landlords

Work without bosses

Society without exploitation

This social conception of co-operation – in which working together is about people being able to take control of their lives – is characterised well by GDH Cole in his analysis of the Rochdale Pioneers in The Century of Co-operation:

” . . . if, in 1844 or some time afterwards, a well-informed Englishman or Sctotsman had been asked to say what he understood by the word ‘Co-operation’ he would most probably have answered in terms which would have described a movement very different in its fundamental ideas and objectives from the Consumers’ Co-operation of to-day. . . . to any of the founders of the Rochdale Society, 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.”

Co-operation here is not about business or individual interests, it is not a means to an end; it is a political and social ideal, a way for people to live dignified lives over which they are in control.

Despite a gap of 150 years, despite a very different environment, despite arguably big differences between the types of organisations involved, Radical Routes’ aims and principles appear as a modern version of this:

“We want to see a world based on equality and co-operation, where people give according to their ability and receive according to their needs, where work is fulfilling and useful and creativity is encouraged, where decision making is open to everyone with no hierarchies, where the environment is valued and respected in its own right rather than exploited.

“We want to take control over all aspects of our lives. However, as we are not all in a position of control we are forced to compromise in order to exist.

“We are working towards taking control over our housing, education and work through setting up housing and worker co-ops, and co-operating as a network.”

Michael Albert, a US activist, theorist and advocate of worker co-ops argues along these lines (in an uncharacteristically mild way): “What characterizes positive direction?” he asks.

“Positive direction is more and more people having a more and more appropriate level of say over their own lives. It is more and more people getting a fairer and fairer share of a social product and getting a fairer set of burdens they have to fulfill to be a part of society.”

The economic concept of co-operation

This social concept of co-operation might be used to explain and justify co-operation at the more radical edges of the co-op movement. But there is a second concept of co-operation that we find more regularly used to justify co-operation: the idea that co-operation is a rational way for people – or businesses – to realise, or maximise, their interests.

This is what is being appealed to when claims like the following are made – the kinds of claims which I have on many occasions made when promoting co-operatives:

  • “By working together businesses can reduce costs, share risks and create new platforms for growth. Consortium co-operatives run on a shared and equal way by, and for the benefit of, their members. Members can be businesses, partnerships or individuals.” This is  Co-operative Development Scotland but it could be from many other organisations.
  • “In the UK and elsewhere it has been shown that employees who have a stake in the company they work for are more committed to delivering quality and are more flexible in the face of the needs of the business.” This argument for employee ownership is from the Cass Business School’s research but a host of organisations, like the Employee Ownership Association and John Lewis, make this point.
  • “Plurality of forms of ownership provides more opportunity to align the form of ownership with the appropriate business model, promotes more resilience to shocks within particular sectors and wider economy, allows investors and savers more avenues in which to save and invest and gives consumers more choice.” This argument that the economy can benefit from more co-operatives because it creates corporate diversity and therefore helps protect the economy as a whole is from the Ownership Commission, chaired by Will Hutton.”
  • “Once outside the public sector, employees report greater professional freedom and flexibility to provide user focused services that are responsive to local needs.” This argument, here from the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals Information Service is a classic argument for how co-operative and mutual models are effective ways to strengthen public services because they unleash the interests and creativity of those most closely involved in the service – the users and staff.

Underlying all these arguments for co-operatives is the idea that co-operation is a strategy for self-interested individuals – or firms – to get the best for themselves: co-operation will encourage people to do more, try harder, reduce costs or protect economic stability

Amongst academics this concept of co-operation is of growing interest. Game theory, rational choice theory and evolutionary biology, from foundational texts like Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Co-operation in 1984 to Martin Nowak’s Supercooperators in 2011, all highlight the importance of co-operation amongst self-interest agents.

This concept of co-operation is what we might call an economic one because it is based on the theory of human motivation that is at the foundation of liberal politics and capitalist economics – that people are motivated by the desire to maximise their interests and as such will work together only if it is a way to achieve that. It is best summed up by Adam Smith in 1776, in one of the founding texts of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations.

“In civilised society he stands at all times in need of the cooperation and assistance of great multitudes, while his whole life is scarce sufficient to gain the friendship of a few persons.In almost every other race of animals each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

A matter of emphasis

There are two concepts of co-operation used to justify co-operation then: one says co-operation is an end in itself, intimately tied up with ideals like dignity and autonomy; the other says that co-operation is a strategy for self-interested individuals to maximise their own interests.

Sometimes the social conception is used to justify co-operating; sometimes the economic conception; often both are used together, and it’s a question of emphasis.

The recent UK Co-operative Economy 2014, Co-operatives UK’s annual state of the sector report, is a case in point. Like many arguments for co-operatives that are directed at policy makers, journalists and business leaders, it puts the emphasis on the economic concept of co-operation:

“As businesses owned and run for the benefit of their members, co-operatives are controlled by the people with the strongest interest in their long-term future: employees, customers, suppliers or local communities. Because they have a stake in the business and share in its profits, the members actively participate in the success of the business.

“This potent combination of people and participation is a tried and tested formula: People + participation = performance.”

It continues:

“More than just businesses, co-operatives are an international force for good. Across the world they offer people a way to organise themselves and take control of the forces that shape their lives. They give workers power over their jobs and livelihoods, allow small businesses to get a better deal in the market and enable customers to influence.”

On this account, co-operation is a way to create long-termism in business, give people a share of profits, help businesses cut costs, get customer input, boost employee productivity and, ultimately, drive performance. There is a nod to the social good of co-ops but it is vague rather than specific and is largely hidden beneath the economic justification. (Full disclosure: I say this as the person who wrote the 2014 UK Co-operative Economy.)

Co-operatives UK’s report is not alone in mixing the social and the economic justifications of co-operation. The International Co-operative Alliance’s eight new statements accompanying the global marque for co-operatives is similar. They range from ‘co-operative enterprises build a better world’ (a social idea) to ‘a growing and sustainable model of enterprise” (an economic idea).

The two justifications are not mutually exclusive then, though as we see with Co-operatives UK’s report and, indeed, with work from the Employee Ownership Association, Cass Business School, Co-operative Development Scotland and the Ownership Commission – in the UK at least, the emphasis tends to be on the economic concept of co-operation.

Why it matters

Why does it matter which idea is used to justify co-operatives? Ultimately, I think it matters in two ways.

First, which you use matters because in using one justification you pose a challenge to our current economic order whilst in using the other you are reinforcing it.

If you use the social conception you are justifying co-operation as an alternative, a way to change economics and society, to give people control and challenge the way that politics and economics currently operate. Ultimately, it’s a political or even ideological justification for co-operatives. This is exactly what Radical Routes are saying.

If you use the economic conception on the other hand you are not challenging the way the economy or business is arranged but saying that co-operatives are an optimum way to deliver within the current economy. This is what we are saying when we argue, for example, that making employees owners creates more profit or value for the business and the economy.

Second, though, it matters which you use because both pose a strategic question for the co-operative movement at the least, and a strategic risk.

By choosing to use the social idea of co-operation you are making a decision about how to position co-operatives: you are choosing to position them as an alternative to business focused on profit maximisation, one that provides people with inherent goods like autonomy, dignity or solidarity.

Strategically, this is an important decision. It makes it far less likely to be accepted by conventional entrepreneurs, business leaders or those supporting business start-ups and growth. It makes it difficult for business journalists to understand and for most policy makers in liberal governments to advocate or support.

In choosing to focus the justification for co-operation on the social theory you are choosing to position co-ops as an economic – perhaps even political – alternative. In so doing, co-operation is being elevated above a mere business model or way of running an organisation: it puts the focus on co-operatives as a movement for economic, social and perhaps even political change.

There are arguably long terms benefits to this kind of positioning: where practical alternatives to capitalism are sought, co-operatives can prove a powerful option, as we have seen in Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba, for example. There are risks, too, though, in isolating co-operatives; not least that they remain a minority form of organisation.

The Canadian co-operative writer John Restakis puts this strategy well – and hints at the dilemmas – in his account of the Greek workers who have reclaimed, and now run as a worker co-op, the Bio Me factory in Athens:

“Bio Me is pointing to a radically new direction about how the workers of Greece and other failing economies might rethink the strategies of resistance they need to pursue if they are to achieve substantive, systemic change. Protest strikes and street demonstrations are one thing. Factory occupation and production under worker control is a new ball game altogether.

“The Bio Me model questions the very idea of the sovereignty of capital. Equally transformative is Bio Me’s vision of a solidarity economy network that operates outside the conventional market system to support models that rely on a wholly different set of values for serving people’s real needs.

Makis and his fellow co-operators are fully aware of the role they are playing in the effort to re-imagine what an economics of equity and justice might look like. And they are under no illusions as to the enormity of the task ahead. But as he said with a characteristic shrug of his shoulders, “What alternative is there? What else can workers do?””

If, on the other hand, you choose to justify co-operation on the basis of self-interest the benefits are much more immediate and tactical. Insofar as there is evidence that co-operatives are more productive, create economies of scale or better services, then it is easier to explain to business, the media and policy makers why the co-operative model ought to be used and supported. This, of course, is why lobbying organisations like Co-operatives UK and reports aiming to influence policy like the Ownership Commission’s adopt this approach. Appealing to the dominant frame in which enterprise is understood is the way to ‘mainstream’ co-operation.

But there is a big strategic risk with this too. If co-operatives are of value only because they help people maximise the interest of individuals or firms – whether creating more productive businesses or enabling businesses to cut costs – then they are open to that result being delivered more effectively by another organisational form or model.

If, for example, the only reason why businesses should be owned by their staff is because it makes those staff more productive then if, say, new technology could increase productivity further then that may render the need for co-operation redundant. Similarly, if the benefit of co-operatives is to cut costs for individual businesses, then if a new and more efficient way to cut costs is found, co-operation may no longer be needed.

Arguably this is exactly what happened to the building societies in the 1980s when legislation was introduced enabling them to demutualise if the members voted in favour. If building societies in the 1980s had justified their role on the basis of providing an institution owned and run by normal people who benefit from and control it, it is unlikely that the offer of a small cash incentive (typically £500) would have enticed the members to vote for demutualisation. But, because building societies justified themselves to their membership on the basis of serving their economic interests – providing them with an account, a mortgage, interest and so on – as soon as what appeared to be a more efficient way of meeting their interests came along they opted for it.

This is not the only reason for the mutualisation of building societies, but it does illustrate the strategic risk in justifying co-operative (or in this case, mutual) ownership on the basis of serving self-interest.

To finish

I’d like to conclude with three things.

First: a recap. My point in writing this has been to clarify something that I think many of us know but haven’t taken the time think through fully. Explanations of why co-operation is a good thing tend to fall on one two justifications: either co-operation gives people dignity, autonomy and control over their lives, or it is a way for people to maximise their interests, or a mix of the two. Those which put the emphasis on the former social conception are making a strategic decision to position co-ops as an economic alternative whereas those which put the emphasis on the latter economic conception are making a strategic decision to position co-operation as one efficient way to maximise individual interests.

Second: a call to action. My call to action is for people promoting the co-operative model – whether campaign bodies, activists, national organisations, lobbyists, individual businesses – to give serious thought to whether they are using an economic or a social justification for co-operation. It matters, a lot. Their choice will impact upon how the co-operative model is positioned and could affect the long-term future and viability of the co-operative movement.

Finally: an opinion. I think, in the end, putting too much emphasis on the economic conception of co-operation is the biggest strategic risk to the co-operative movement.As long as co-operation is justified as a way to maximize self-interest in certain situations, it will always be susceptible to being superseded by other methods of maximising self-interest more effectively. And in a capitalist economy, when new technology is transforming the business landscape every few years, that is too big a risk to take.

This is not to say that the economic justification should be shelved or ignored. But it is to say that too much emphasis on co-operation as a means for maximising self-interest is a strategic risk that in the long-term may put the co-operative movement as a whole on a less solid foundation.

The philosophy of rewilding 

Monbiot 880_0

George Monbiot’s Feral is a well-written, well-researched book arguing that we need to ‘rewild’ our lands, our seas and ourselves. His contention is that our world has gradually shifted away from its wild state as we have sought to domesticate and control it. Lands have been stripped of forests and the ecosystems they supported. The seas have been stripped of its plant life. And we are more disconnected from nature and risk than ever before. We should, he says, reintroduce native species, leave the land and sea alone, live wilder lives.

It’s a polemical book that works on two levels: first person stories about a wilder life pull at the emotions whilst its thorough use of zoological research hits the brain.

There is not, though, any theoretical or philosophical reflection in Feral. Monbiot refers to, and quickly dismisses, the political movement known as ‘anarcho-primitivism’ which wants us to move beyond civilisation and regain our previous wilder lives. And he touches fleetingly on some of the societal and political implications of rewilding. But nothing more. And that’s not a problem – philosophy is not his focus and, after all, you can’t cover everything in a book.

Nevertheless, a look at the philosophy of rewilding would have provided an interesting, different and perhaps more complicating perspective

Rousseau, for example, was big on the link between humans and nature for example. For him, there was an original ‘state of nature’ in which humans were free and happy and which have been stripped away through our politics, states and organisation.

Monbiot isn’t arguing that we should return to some kind of ‘state of nature’ but that we should reintroduce elements of the wild (native species, more risk and so on), which would create something new, wilder and less predictable than our current world.

Nietzsche’s thinking is a bit more complex. Humans are very much part of the natural world, he says, and this is manifested in the repetitive, unimaginative and frankly unremarkable lives most people lead. The concept of the ‘herd mentality’ – which he uses to refer to people’s conformity to mass values – is emblematic of this.

But Nietzsche also has his beloved ‘uberman’: the person who isn’t confined by nature’s limits but lives a striving, creative and remarkable life. This person, in a way, exemplifies the kind of wild life that Monbiot wants.

The problem is, of course, that life would be very difficult if everybody lived like this. Monbiot, in fact, points out that it would not be desirable for everyone to uncontained lives not bounded by laws or moral standards. That’s not an issue for Nietzsche, who says that not everybody is capable of this kind of life anyway: it’s only for the select few, the great.

A less radical and more egalitarian view can be found in Thoreau and one of his interpreters, Jane Bennett.

Thoreau, of course, is known to have given up with civilisation for a year or two and retreated to Walden Woods where he built himself a hut and lived a ludicrously simple life. He documented his daily life so we can all enjoy the mundane existence and occasional insights into the links between human and natural life.

Bennett has a very nice concept that she finds in Thoreau’s writings: ‘the wild’. By this she means those parts of existence that can’t be contained or captured, which elide explanation.

There is always an element of ‘the wild’ which exceeds things she says: it’s those desires that can’t be kept in check, for example, those flowers that appear through cracks in the concrete. The thing is to recognise that ‘the wild’ is always there and, rather than contain it, embrace it.

Embracing ‘the wild’ also appears to be a theme in some of the most prominent critical theory today – in the work of Zizek and Badiou, for example. I can’t imagine either would have any particular interest in the environmental debate about rewilding. But I can imagine that a shift to a world where people live wilder, more risky land radically different lives would appeal to them.

Zizek’s concept of ‘the act’ and Badiou’s ‘event’ are both about people, collectively, deciding they want a change an trying to bring it about without knowing what it will result in  – in other words, they are about people taking a risk.

There isn’t, as far as I’m aware, a philosophy of rewilding. It’s not hard to see, though, that the ideas of Nietzsche, Thoreau, Zizek, Badiou and I have no doubt many others (Aristotle Spinoza, Deleuze . . .) would add an extra, though not always unequivocal, dimension to Monbiot’s call to rewild our lives.

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.