Co-operate: “Because we have to”

Barely a week after the last one, last Thursday I attended another great meeting!  It was hosted by the Herman Liebman Memorial Fund and attended by a group of advocates for and participants in mutualism and co-operatives.  Those words may have a 19th century ring to them.  But as the keynote speaker, Sara Horowitz, said, they are vital if we’re going to survive the 21st

Ms. Horowitz has written “Mutualism: Building the next economy from the ground up”.  She helped start a trade union for freelance workers (there’s an idea!) and spoke passionately and eloquently about the necessity to “replace and replenish our civic infrastructure” through the co-operative model immortalized by the Rochdale Pioneers (very good, quite long, myth-busting paper by Brett Fairbairn about the Pioneers here). 

I’ve written before about the rich tradition of workers’ housing co-ops in NYC, my own experience of the co-op movement and frustration with how its ideals have been perverted.  Despite this – and the existence of COINOism (co-operative in name only) – the meeting was a reminder that the ideals remain relevant. 

East Ham High Road, east London, in the 1970s, with the Co-Op store, where we did all our shopping when I was a child, on both sides of the Denmark Arms (which I also used to visit frequently in later life!).

For as long as I can remember, some people have been telling me co-operation (and therefore, by extension, socialism) can’t work because humans are innately selfish.  I’ve never believed that, but one of the most powerful points Ms. Horowitz made was that in times of crisis, we behave mutually.  There are exceptions (I gather the UK’s current scramble for petrol is one of them), but in general, if we think about disasters, like 9/11 or Grenfell, people co-operate. 

Disasters are our present-future.  Whether it’s climate change, pandemics, energy supplies or housing, dog-eat-dog capitalism is making things worse.  Apart from a few flat-earthers and greedy, selfish bastards, we all know working together is better than working apart.  It’s easy to say that though.  Thursday’s meeting made a real effort to understand why it’s not happening on the scale we need it to.

Of course, co-operativism battles against an entire socio-economic and ideological structure that doesn’t want it.  As several people at the meeting said, mutualism can feel like swimming against the tide.  But tides change and as others pointed out, the movements around Occupy, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter show that many (maybe most?) young people want something different and better.

Sara Horowitz also argued that, although social media can seem like a celebration of the self, it also contains elements of the collective.  She cited Facebook Groups and Crowd Funding as contemporary examples of the “caring and sharing” that used to be the slogan of the Co-Op when I was growing up. 

However, she also pointed out the problems with sham co-operativsm and how the “non-profit” model and NGO-style activism can distort and divert the principles, particular issues in the housing world.  Part of the answer to that is trying to raise awareness of the co-op movement’s history and its roots in working class communities and also – as Sara said – in the living traditions of black and minority ethnic and faith organisations. 

The meeting agreed trade unions have the potential to galvanise co-operativism, as they did in the past.  This needs to go beyond using the label for short-term electoral purposes and make enduring commitments, as 20th century NYC unions did with housing co-ops.  It’s true, as Ed Yaker said at the meeting, that today’s union leaders don’t have the stature or clout of a Sidney Hillman or an Abraham Kazan[1], but ultimately, that’s about more demands coming from below.   

The parallels between Rochdale in the 1840s and today are uncomfortably close. As Fairbairn writes:

The labourers who organized the Rochdale Pioneers, 150 years ago, were people suffering from the social dislocations of the industrial revolution. They struggled to survive periodic unemployment, low pay, unhealthy cities, and dangerous workplaces…They were dependent on merchants who were sometimes unscrupulous, who exploited the helplessness of the poor by selling at high prices, by adulterating goods, or by trapping them with offers of credit.  Their answer to daunting social problems was a special kind of self-help: mutual self-help, in which they would help themselves by helping each other. It was a small start to a large international movement.  (Fairbairn, 1994)

The perennial question is how do we both (re)build and sustain such a movement today, in the context of hyper-individual consumption?  Maybe, like the Rochdale Pioneers, we need to take the first steps, but with a bit of confidence.  As Sara Horowitz said at the end of the meeting “A lot of people want to come to the co-op party.  We just need to throw it.”

The original C0-Op store in Rochdale, Lancashire.

[1] I didn’t realise, until just now, that there’s Cooperative Hall of Fame.  There’s one for everything here! 

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