Why not Co-operate?

The fordist model is dead, long live co-operatives? An alternative way to do business.

Robert Murray discusses in a new Red Pepper article the prospects of co-operatives as a solution to the current economic crisis. It stands out for its focus on accountability and social-driven long-term focus.

In the past, consumption co-operations organized a big part of food distribution. You can still see it in the many (European) countries which have a supermarket called ‘Coop’.“By the first world war, British co-ops accounted for 40 per cent of food distribution. They owned their own factories, farms, shipping lines, banks, an insurance company and even a tea plantation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).”. Could Co-ops be a solution we already have known for a long time?

The ideas of co-ops sound pretty much like what we could wish for, according to Murray: “an emphasis on civic and workplace democracy, autonomy, the quality of work and on small-scale units gathered into large federated organisations where a larger scale was necessary.” So how did this wonderful idea slowly disappear? In the 20th century it was all about mass-production and pushing down the price. Besides, a centralised state system emerged – no good environment for the prosperation of co-operatives.

Co-operative banks still exist. This term usually refers to different things including credit unions, mutual savings banks and building societies. In short, however, we can say that the difference between co-operative banks and “normal” ones is that the co-op banks belong to the customers and that every one of them has one vote. Credit unions are a small version of co-op banks and funcion as following: They offers credits at low rates, the members usually share a common identity or interest such as profession, locality or religion. Usually these unions are funded only by member deposits and outside borrowing is not practices. A well-known example are the Raiffeisen banks which can be found all over Europe. The micro-credit system is based on the same idea.

Of course, co-ops are also wide-spread in food production. Did you know that “Parmesan cheese is made by a co-operative of 550 milk producers, Parma ham by a co-operative of pig keepers on the banks of the Po”? Co-operatives have an important influence on quality: “The early British consumer societies required members to shop only at their co-op. Each member therefore had a keen interest in the relative quality and price of its products, and how it was run.”

Now, to come back to the question if this could work on a large scale. Murray finds a couple of critical points, one of which is the importance of a qualitative membership in which what counts is “the degree of a member’s involvement, and his or her development as a person.” That is why education is an important factor in the co-operatist world-view.

To know what it all has to do with Gandhi and what Marx would say about it read Murray’s full article on the prospects of co-operativism for an alternative economy here.

2 thoughts on “Why not Co-operate?

  1. I am all for coops. I think that they are a way for people to access a greater range of foodstuffs than they might otherwise be able to buy. The idea has been used for fresh veggie boxes and organic boxes etc. Its a great idea allowing food to be sourced from the producer and distributed to the masses. It works best when the entire cooperative has a hand in the running of the coop. It keeps costs down and fosters a sense of community. Love it Rahel 🙂

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