Sunday, 18 March 2012

Co-operative Capitalism: A Straw Dog in a Paper Kennel

As part of its Think Piece series, Co-ops UK recently published a pamphlet by star Cambridge economist Noreena Hertz. It sets out a view that the current era of what Hertz calls 'Gucci Capitalism' will and should be followed by the ascendancy of 'Co-op Capitalism', which is characterised by four ideas in action:

- Community is valuable of itself
- The network has worth
- How we interact matters and
- Collaboration can trump competition.

This is interesting, because as far as I know capitalism is a system  for valorising, monetising and capitalising on human creativity, community, collaboration and networks. The nature of the beast is that the portion of peoples' work (not to mention natural resources) capital doesn't compensate for in the form of a social wage, is what it takes and transforms into profit.

To put it another way, if we all worked to our contracts and didn't donate unpaid labour to the masters of the universe by collaborating, co-operating, thinking creatively and generally behaving like human beings rather than robots, capitalism would fall over tomorrow. Hertz and those moral economists and pundits, from Will Hutton to Phillip Blond, who see co-operation as a cure for capitalism's malfunctioning - well, they've got it the wrong way round. Co-operation is both absolutely necessary for capitalism, and one of the last aspects of humanity that capital hasn't completely worked out how to colonise.

Isn't it interesting that the word 'capitalism' is back in the papers, after its twenty-odd year retreat to a cave somewhere on the tundra of the left? Only now, it's capitalism's supporters and improvers who use its name, not so much its opponents. Although usually the term isn't seen on its own, but qualified. So the main debate in the papers and blogs isn't about capitalism as such - it's about 'good' versus 'bad', 'predatory' versus 'sustainable', 'short termist' versus 'long termist', 'ethical' versus 'exploitative' capitalism. Which tends to crowd out any talk of anything else, and that's probably the point.

I don't think Co-operatives UK was completely wrong in putting the pamphlet out. These Think Pieces are part of its mandate to 'mainstream' the movement and stimulate fresh thinking (God knows, we were starved of that for a long time). Hertz is, they say, a heavyweight economist, though I don't rate her as a commentator (she was prescient on the debt crisis! Big deal!) 'Gucci' versus 'Co-op' capitalism is a prime slice of mystification pizza. But it got me thinking. It scrapes on the reef of one or two movement taboos. The co-op movement is a 'broad church' - a political home for all kinds of socialists, anarchists, millenarians, liberals, greens, feminists and displaced persons, as well as normal people; but the deal is that nobody mentions the c-word. When we really do start to take lumps out of Barclays, Tescos, Ben & Jerry's and Powergen, it will be interesting to see how our co-operative unity is tested.

To get to that point, we should worry not at all about making capitalism more co-operative, and focus minds and acts instead on making co-operatives more co-operative, so we can make them a better vehicle for meeting peoples' real and self-defined social, cultural and economic needs. The values and principles are a very powerful formula. Developed over decades and continents through trial and error, as Ed Mayo says the real movement is 2% theory and 98% practice. Hertz's pamphlet demonstrates little understanding of co-operation as a social change movement, but maybe our own is a bit perfunctory in the day-to-day. Scratch a bit below the surface of action principles like democracy, autonomy and member economic participation - get below the 'lowest common denominator' definitions of co-operative identity - and you'll find ideas and methods, not just for running half-decent capitalist enterprises, but also for understanding capitalism and the ways humanity can overcome it.

The pioneers didn't only set out to run a good shop; their stated and realistic desire was also to overturn the system of politics and economics.

You can download Noreena Hertz's pamphlet at