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. 


How the co-op movement can find allies

This is a written version of a short presentation and exercise I did yesterday with Co-operatives East. It offers a strategy or framework for identifying and prioritising potential fellow travellers that co-operative organisations could team up with. Thought I’d post it up here to see if it’s useful . . .

 When I first got involved in the co-op movement I didn’t do it because I thought the co-operative model was an end in itself.

It was a means to an end. This will be different for different people but for me that end was, and largely still is, an economy run for and by the people, one in which we have control over the business and public institutions that exert such a powerful and undemocratic influence over our lives.

Co-operatives are one important route to doing this. But they are not the only one, and there are a whole range of similar and allied organisations – community run organisations, artist collectives, user-led mental health groups, the online peer-to-peer movement, and many others, all of which have similar goals.

But when you get involved heavily in a movement, an organisation or what Seth Godin calls a ‘tribe’, it’s easy to forget this – to focus on the rituals and intricacies of that tribe, to get engrossed in the details and forget the bigger purpose that made this important in the first place.

The co-operative sector is as guilty of this as any other – we, by which I mean those who are active and play an organising role – spend a lot of time debating legal forms, governance and member engagement, but in doing so easily forget the purpose, the reason we were involved in the first place.

So, what I want to do here – and what I’ve done periodically in the past – is to try to stand back from the co-operative movement as we know it and think about what other organisations, networks and groups are out there who have similar purposes.

I don’t have any simple answers, but what I hope to offer is a framework for discussion.


The reason for doing this is two-fold.

The first is for reasons of organisational strategy. I was asked to talk at Co-operatives East, a membership body, about reaching co-operators rather than co-operatives, in order to get people at Co-operatives East thinking about how it, as a regional grouping of co-ops, can best meet its purpose of promoting the co-op economy.

Should it open up its membership to people interested in co-operation? Who are these people? And how can it reach them? This is obviously not just of relevance to Co-ops East but also to other co-operative campaign bodies more widely.

The second reason is about campaign strategy. Successful campaigns are nearly always coalitions rather than single-interests. A campaign to promote the co-operative economy could have marginal successes on its own; a campaign to create an economy run for the people by the people, that involves co-ops, social enterprises, development trusts, the online peer to peer movement, the commons movement, and so on, is much more likely to have a success, assuming a common purpose and message can be found.

In the UK, the Social Economy Alliance is an excellent example of this – it brings together social enterprises, co-ops, trading charities and others and combines their weight to lobby government for common asks. In the US the New Economy Coalition is a broader coalition of organisations involved in grassroots community and economic development, from co-ops to community organisations.

The scale of co-operation

So, what’s the best way to think about, and discuss which networks – which other tribes – are closely aligned with the co-operative movement?

One way is to take the ‘scale of co-operation’ proposed by Co-operatives UK a couple of years back in its publications on practical tools for identifying co-operatives.

The scale looks at two axes: the member ownership axis, which is based on how far an organisation has open membership, how far the members control the business and how far they benefit from it (basically, the first three co-operative principles); and the co-operative ethos axis, based on whether the organisation is autonomous, educates members, co-operates with others and has a community purpose (the last four co-operative principles).

You can see an application of it, from the Co-operatives UK publication, here:


Co-operatives UK developed some questions to ask to help plot where an organisation fits on the scale, and we can see a range of positions on the scale, from Tesco through to Suma, based on this. It provides a broad, but useful, way to think about which organisations are close to the co-operative model in terms of both ownership and ethos, and which are less so.


A second way is to map the networks, groups or ‘tribes’ around the co-operative movement. I’d initially done this to look at where there were overlaps between the purpose of the groups and the co-operative movement in order to identify networks on social media where we, in the co-op movement, could make synergies and links.

But you can also use the scale of co-operation to structure this in order to see which networks are closest to the co-operative movement, and which are further away.

Here’s an example:


What we see here from this rough application is that the commons movement, development trusts and community energy are closest to the co-operative movement, with other organisations such as open business or user-led services further away.


What does this tell us? I think this is a framework to determine which networks or tribes, or which individual organisations or businesses, are close enough to the co-operative movement for closer working and which you should therefore prioritise.

It’s very much a working idea rather than a complete one – there are many more networks to consider, and the ones that have been considered here might not be the right ones, and you can drill down into more detail.

But I think it provides a useful starting point for discussing who could be useful partners in campaigns or, if like Co-operatives East, you are looking to widen membership, who should be eligible for membership.

Once you’ve used this as a mapping exercise and identified who you should focus on, there is then a whole further set of questions around what you want to do with them and what the best way of connecting with them is.

But hopefully this framework can help you understand the networks or organisations on which you should focus your energies.


Get into groups to discuss where you would focus energies if you were opening up membership or looking for partners outside the formal co-operative movement. I would like you to:

  1. Identify the kinds of organisations that are allied with, but just outside, the co-op movement.
  2. Plot them on the scale of co-operation below
  3. Identify where you would focus your energies in terms of recruiting new members, highlighting the three that would be at the core of your strategy


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.

The ‘unknown knowns’ of the co-operative movement


I’ve just finished reading Slavoj Zizek’s short book the concept of the ‘event’. It’s his usual whistle stop tour of philosophy, psychoanalysis and pop culture via a series of distasteful jokes.

Early on he refers to the idea of ‘unknown knowns.’ He is referencing the famous quote from the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

‘Unknown knowns’ are a category Rumsfeld doesn’t refer to but Zizek sees as the essential one he missed: they are those things which we unconsciously follow (like habits or prejudices), the things which structure much of our lives without us even realising it. For Zizek, philosophy’s role is to unmask unknown knowns.

It takes major events, transformation and eruptions to bring unknown knowns to the surface. And if the co-op movement has experienced anything over the last few months its those.

So, what unknown knowns have the last few months brought to the surface for the co-op movement?  What are the big assumptions that the co-operative movement blindly follows?

My view is that we’ve been following a number of mistaken assumptions.

 Unknown known one: we think we’re better than other businesses

We seem to have been working under the assumption that co-ops are ‘better’ than other businesses. But we don’t seem to have been clear how co-ops are better.

We say co-ops build a better world and try to find empirical proof, but do we really understand what makes co-ops different, how they build a better world? What framework should we use to show the difference co-ops make? What makes co-operation different from charity, or CSR?

When co-ops were politicised organisations they provided workers with fairer conditions or practical alternatives to industrial capitalism. What are co-ops now? Businesses? Social movements? Capitalist? Anti-capitalist? A-capitalist? Anarchist? Socialist? Something else?

Unknown known two: we can play the capitalist game

We seem to have been assuming that co-ops can compete with conventional businesses in a market whilst also remaining true to the things that make them better.

Is this right? Can co-ops manage this balance? A number of flat pay worker co-ops indicate yes; the troubles at Mondragon or the Co-op Bank suggest not.

Unknown known three: we’ve lost our purpose

The big one, which perhaps incorporates all of these: ultimately, what we’ve known for some time but seem to have been unable to articulate, is that today’s co-operative movement lacks a clear sense of what it is for, and just as importantly what is against.

This is what the leading Cambridge economist  Ha-Joon Chang was telling us earlier this year:

“My interpretation is that the co-operative movement has lost faith in its own identity. If you don’t take pride in the fact you’re a co-op, you don’t tell other people and therefore people don’t know who you are or what you stand for. If you don’t have faith in yourself, why should other people take you seriously? I think that’s the trouble. There is an identity crisis.”

What would Zizek do if he identified a mistaken assumption? Make a bad joke probably.

What should we do? We need to make a plan, something that sets us on the path to answering these big questions about what co-ops are and aren’t.

We need a different narrative

The last year has revealed that the co-operative movement needs a different narrative.

Since the start of the financial crash in 2008 we have seen the gradual rise of a certain narrative about co-operatives. We might call this the ‘performance narrative’, which says, in short, that co-ops are successful businesses that can outperform their non-co-operative rivals.

Whilst this wasn’t necessarily a co-ordinated strategy across the movement, it has become the dominant narrative, with many of the loudest voices in the movement using it in their communications and, in fact, reflecting it in their commercial strategy.

The Co-operative Group’s attempt to grow through acquisition and merger is the most visible example but the problems at Rabobank and Mondragon, the regular claims in the UK, Europe and internationally about coops being more resilient than other business models and the large number of pieces of research commissioned to explain the productivity gains and competitive advantage of co-ops and employee ownership – all these point to the dominance of the performance narrative that tells us that ‘through good times and bad’ co-ops are a more resilient form of business than other models.

There was always, though (and, of course, still is) a different narrative being pursued by other coops that haven’t got such a loud voice.

This narrative, which we might call a ‘people narrative’ as opposed to a ‘performance narrative’ doesn’t
emphasise the conventional business and economic benefits of coops. It focuses on something fundamental and unique to co-ops – on the fact that they offer of an alternative to conventional businesses by putting businesses under the control of people, rather than vice versa. In this narrative, whether co-ops are better than other businesses in conventional terms is by the by. Their significance lies in giving people control.

It’s the subtle narrative we’ve seen from worker coops in particular, like Suma in the UK or New Era Windows in the States, where the stress is on creating decent work and giving people voice. It’s also something we see in the growing community shares movement. And it’s evident globally around the role of coops in international development.

If the coop movement – not just a small number of coops – is to genuinely offer an alternative in line with this people narrative some significant changes in the way many coops operate May be needed – we may need to think about the size and structure of coop businesses, as well as their democracy, governance and member control.

But what it needs first and most of all is for the coop movement to move away from the narrative of resilience, productivity and success. That’s not to say that co-ops aren’t all these things. But they are not what set co-ops apart.

What makes co-ops unique is that their structure gives people control.

So let’s focus on this. We need to establish a different narrative around co-ops being a genuine alternative which puts people in control of business and the economy.

Comms, leadership and the risks of Have Your Say

[This is a longer, more opinionated version of something I wrote that features in today’s Co-operative News]

The Have Your Say campaign shows a bold leadership style, but risks alienating members and employees if it isn’t a genuine opportunity for people to shape the Co-operative Group’s strategy.

The Co-operative Group recently launched its Have Your Say campaign. Supported by extensive advertising and media activity, it aims to get input from members, staff, customers and the public on where the business is now and, most importantly, it’s future direction.

For Euan Sutherland and the management team at The Co-operative Group, it is a bold statement. They are signalling that the Group is ready to break with the old and that it wants the views of people across the UK to shape what the new will look like.

Interestingly, in Have Your Say, the Group’s executive and Board also appear to be demonstrating an innovative approach to communication and leadership. As Euan Sutherland said in the statement accompanying the launch:

“We will be asking people up and down the country what they believe the Co-operative should really stand for. This is an unprecedented move for an organisation of the size and the scale of the Co-operative and the results will feed directly into our wider review of strategy and purpose.”

Arguably, most businesses faced with the difficult task of reinventing themselves and demonstrating a turnaround take a conventional approach. The Board and executive team work closely with a limited number of stakeholders to develop a new vision and strategy, which they then launch to the employees and public.

The foundation of this approach to leadership is sounding authoritative – setting out a clear vision, outlining the plan to get there and showing that the business is in a position to deliver. Appearing in control is everything.

There is the danger of seeming arrogant, though, and after the very public failings of The Co-operative Bank last year – and Euan Sutherland’s view that it has ‘lost touch with its members and customers’ – this is the last thing the Group wants.

It makes sense, then, that The Co-operative Group has adopted a different, more collaborative, leadership style. It appears to turn the standard approach to leadership on its head. Rather than announcing the business’s vision and strategy to the public, it is getting input from a huge number of people, which can then help the Board and executive determine the strategy.

As a communications device to demonstrate that The Group is not a conventional large business but one run by and for people, the Have Your Say campaign is outstanding. And, if the right questions are asked – and all the input is used effectively – The Group is likely to have significant information to shape the strategy.

But there is a serious risk emerging: that rather than getting the support of some of its closest and most engaged stakeholders – its employees and active members – the Co-operative Group alienates them.

A number of active members in the co-operative movement on social media are dismissing Have Your Say as a PR exercise rather than a genuine opportunity to shape the business’s future strategy.

Worse, others on social media and members and employees contacting the Co-operative News, think the big questions are loaded or even missing.

The Guardian’s leader comment the day after the launch argued that the questions about funding the Co-operative Party make it almost impossible for respondents to agree that the party’s funding should be continued. Others have pointed out that the big questions about the Group’s role in providing ethical leadership are not asked and instead the focus is on more local and community matters.

All this points to the concerns, amongst some, that the vision and future strategy of The Co-operative Group is in fact already decided. As one employee put it to me, Have Your Say is really intended to ‘manufacture a mandate’ for a new strategy that the executive and Board has agreed.

We cannot know whether or not this is the case. The challenge for the executive and Board, though, is to assure it’s employees and members that Have Your Say is more than an expensive communications exercise or an illusion of democracy. They need to demonstrate that this really a collaborative approach to leadership and a genuine opportunity to shape The Co-operative Group’s vision and strategy.