Saturday, 9 March 2013

Co-operative autonomy, co-operative autarky

In the UK campaign for co-operation, the question of whether we appeal to co-operatives or 'co-operatives and mutuals' crops up every couple of years or so. Just as predictably, when rank-and-file members or democratic boards are asked what the tactical emphasis should be, they say "mutuals are welcome, but please focus on co-operative identity". Yet the question keeps popping back onto the agenda.

This back-and-forth isn't just a discussion about how best to pull assorted mutuals and social enterprises towards our vision of a democratic and egalitarian economy. It's an expression of different views of co-operation. Are co-ops a repair kit for failing markets and misfiring capitalism, or harbingers of a new commonwealth? Are they one among several friendly models, on a fuzzy continuum between private and communal enterprise, or are they a special purpose vehicle for changing the world?

I was thinking about this coming back from a seminar in Birmingham last week, attended by reps from the 10 regional co-operative councils (RCCs) and Co-operatives UK, our national apex body. The RCCs sit somewhere between Manchester and the movement on the ground. They are aligned with Co-ops UK, sharing resources and intelligence, but they are autonomous and run mainly by volunteers (my co-op, Calverts, is a member of Co-operatives London).

A participant referred several times to 'co-ops-and-mutuals', mentioning the tendency some of us have to speak about mutuals as if they were 'second-rate co-ops'. He was also not keen on what he called 'co-operative autarky' - a closed or self-sufficient economic system. Of course, such talk would be rude in mixed company. But this was a gathering of movement activists.

Maybe co-operative autarky is exactly what we should be aiming at. The co-operative commonwealth is not compatible with capitalism in the long run. As far as I can tell, many other co-operators think it's axiomatic.

For now, these differences won't cause division. Neither side is very close to achieving its goals (fixing capitalism, or replacing it). We want and need to draw others into co-operation. We have to listen to what they're saying, and learn from what they're doing. But in trying to grow and strengthen the co-operative economy, to make it fit for purpose, a bit more autarky would go a long way.

In the UK, for instance, co-operative education is patchy. We have weak mechanisms for strategic investment in the co-operative economy - for example, by recirculating money into co-operative enterprise through credit unions, raising philanthropic donations, building an industrial investment bank to drive down the cost of co-operative capital.  We do not seek out opportunities to occupy new economic territory in an organised or conscious enough way. In its day-to-day operations, the co-operative nation runs a large and potentially avoidable balance of payments deficit with the empire of capitalism.

Quite a long time ago, the environmental movement recognised that 'closed loops' in manufacturing and recycling are key to sustaining the world's resources. Our movement could extend that insight, by designing and operating closed loops for the co-operative commons. To do that, we might need to adjust our attitude and thinking. Partly, that's what developing co-operative culture means.

Is autarky nothing less than the endgame of co-operative autonomy? The autonomy principle - not just autonomy for co-operatives, but for human beings to organise themselves to become free of a crushing economic and social system - is profound and important.

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