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.”

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Do we need a ‘new economy’ movement?

The short version of this post is a question: with so many different movements – co-op, transition, the sharing economy, the commons, etc – aiming for something similar, should we drop our particular concerns and unite as a broad-based movement for a new economy?

Here’s the longer version.

I recently saw a conference in the US for ‘A national gathering for the new economy movement.’

It clarified something in my mind that I’ve been thinking for a while.

In the UK (and in the US too, no doubt) there are lots of separate ‘movements’. All of them seem to be aiming for something similar. Yet they are all operating independently; sometimes even competing with one another.

  • The co-operative movement is one of the largest and most established. It is a broad church, with large businesses, sometimes very democratic, sometimes not easily distinguished from the shareholder model, and radical worker and housing co-ops agitating for change. There is, though, a core set of ideas, held by many in this sector, around creating a more democratic, equitable economy.
  • There is a relatively new movement around the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. Based around developments in technology, it makes use of digital tools to give people control of their lives and free themselves from corporations and bureaucratic institutions. As Evgeny Morozov has argued, there is a strong individualistic – perhaps even neo-liberal – strand to this; but there is also a move towards ‘we’ not ‘me’ and sharing not owning.
  • A more egalitarian version of this movement can be found in the movement for the commons. This is a broad collection of people arguing that certain assets and goods are best kept out of public or private ownership – indeed out of the money economy – and instead should be managed by the people themselves: community buildings, Wikipedia, land, software and so on. It’s informed by the ideas of Elinor Ostrom on managing the commons, but is a practical movement.
  • The transition movement builds on this, but with a distinct environmental edge. It proposes local communities take matters into their own hands and create resilient economies and communities as a way to address impending changes caused climate change and other pressing ecological shifts. Though occasionally associated with certain a smug middle classness in the UK, it is a growing and increasingly global movement.
  • Social enterprise also feels like an increasingly important and relatively distinct movement that wants to use business for social purpose. Until recently it appears to have developed independently of co-operatives – despite the overlaps and similarities – whilst co-operatives have taken a similarly anti-social enterprise stance. The emergence of the Social Economy Alliance, discussed later, is a welcome change to this.
  • And finally there’s the Occupy movement – what felt in 2011 like the start of a new non-hierarchical movement for social and economic change, and lives on in ideas of worker ownership, mutual aid and a growing politicisation amongst students and young people. Whilst there may not be one unifying vision for this movement, as David Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, argues the value of Occupy was its focus on a radical democratic process and a demand for meaningful democratic control over the world of work.

None of these different movements are monolithic. They often have different strands within them. As Joshua Brustein says of the sharing economy movement in Business Week, for example, “the so-called sharing economy, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.”

But I think you can identify a common vision nestled in many (though not all) of the ideas that inspire movements for co-operatives, the commons, transition, Occupy and social enterprise.

GDH Cole, 50 years ago, puts it like this when talking about the British founders of the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century:

“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.”

And, 150 years later, you get a sense of this in the ideals of the transition movement. As the Transition Network explains on its website: “Transition is a quiet revolution unfolding around the world. People like you and I are seeing crisis as the opportunity for doing something different, something extraordinary. It’s an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. Transition is one manifestation of the idea that local action can change the world; one attempt to create a supportive, nurturing, healthy context in which the practical solutions the world needs can flourish.”

There is, I think, a common vision here: of a new economy where people take things into their own hands, creating an economy run for the people by the people.

It might not apply to every organisation, every activist or every writer in every movement. But I’d argue that it cuts across a significant chunk of each movement and provides a relatively common vision for them.

If this is the case, then I think we can see a few important tasks ahead.

First, articulate the vision. We need to find a way of articulating a meaningful and compelling vision of an alternative economy that all these different movements could sign up to.

Second, make the connections.
Whilst there are some connections between the various movements they tend to be small scale, practical alliances built on specific crossovers.

The best example is  the Social Economy Alliance – an excellent example of primarily social enterprise, but also co-op, bodies coming together to campaign in the run up to the 2015 general election.

This campaign is specifically around raising awareness of business for social purpose; but it has the seeds of a broader alliance if it can include other movements and articulate a vision of a better world.

So the task here is to build on this, to connect at a strategic level around a shared vision through which we can downplay the differences between the movements, identify the similarities and work together as a broad based movement for social change.

Third, find a name. A good, relevant, meaningful name is important for unifying people behind a common cause.

In the US the term ‘new economy’ is catching on to capture this movement. In the UK we already have the pioneering New Economics Foundation, and the ‘new economy’ seems to be a way to incorporate the aspirations and innovations of the various movements.

So, perhaps we need to connect the leaders and activists of the diverse movements, create a shared vision, and kick start a movement for a new economy.

Is the co-operative movement a social movement?

I’ve just returned from the International Co-operative Alliance’s Global Conference, spending a week with 1,000 supporters of co-operatives from around the world.

One of the most fascinating parts of the events was hearing large businesses explicitly aligning themselves with a movement for social change. It wasn’t unusual to hear people like the President of the largest healthcare insurer in France say, for example:  ‘We are kidding ourselves if we think we can be a social movement without a stable economic footing.’

Yet I left the conference feeling a little troubled. Not troubled by the people who were there, or what I heard and felt there. Everyone I met believed in a co-operation, in the possibility of a fairer world, and in co-operative business as a means to the bigger end of social change. It was incredible.

But troubled about the fact that there is a big difference between those attending this conference – and their passion for social change – and what you see day-to-day in the wider co-operative world.

And on reflection, I think that sense of trouble stems from the distinction that we in the co-operative world don’t draw clearly enough: between co-operative businesses and the co-operative movement.

Co-operative businesses are individual businesses, trading in the market and doing what they can to give their members, ownership, control and a share of the profits.

The co-operative movement is a collection of people who share similar ideals of what a better world would look like, and see co-operative businesses as a means to achieving this fairer, co-operative world. You might say they subscribe in form to the ideology of ‘co-operativism’.

Co-operative businesses have certain elements of that ideology written into their constitution – member control, democracy, sharing profits and so on. And some of them are incredible, inspiring examples of businesses committed to their members AND to something far, far bigger. But unless a co-operative business explicitly allies itself with others and this wider vision of a better world, it is simply an isolated businesses.

You can’t really call these isolated businesses part of a movement for a better world when they don’t advocate such a better world.

I don’t know how many co-operative do promote or subscribe to this vision of a co-operative society. But I’d guess there are a lot of co-operative businesses – perhaps even most – out there that don’t. And if this is true for the founders, directors and managers of these businesses, it’s likley to be even more true of the wider membership.

There are, I think, a few very important implications here.

First, it means the co-operative movement is probably not as big as we say. There may be 1 billion co-operative members worldwide, but how many subscribe to a vision of a co-operative society? If we’re honest, how many actually know there is such a movement, or that co-operatives provide an ideological alternative?

Second, and out of step with the now-dominant idea that co-operative businesses should be ‘mainstreamed’, we should see the co-operative movement as a political movement, Not party political, but a movement that aims to bring about a shift in the way the economy is organised. Individual co-operative businesses are important, but they are actually just the means to a much bigger and more important end.

Third, whilst advocating and campaigning externally is crucial, a campaign by the co-operative movement aimed at co-operative businesses and their members is just as urgent; perhaps more so. If we can persuade those co-operative businesses – and perhaps even their active members – that co-operation is not just a good way to run a business but is a good way to arrange society and the economy, then we will start to build a bigger and stronger co-operative movement.