Who are the new co-op weavers?

'It does not take much imagination to see the parallels between the pressures placed on the Fenwick weavers and the perils of today's gig economy workers'

There is something exciting happening in the world of co-ops which harks back to the very beginning of the movement.

Although Rochdale is usually quoted as the ‘birthplace of co-operation’, records show that in 1761, 16 weavers in Ayrshire set up The Society of Weavers in Finnick, arguably making them the first co-operative organisation of the industrial age. It was 83 years later, in 1844, that the Rochdale Pioneers opened their store on Toad Lane, Rochdale, and devised the principles which would become the model for co-operatives worldwide.

Regardless of the dates, both groups had the same objectives, and the Fenwick charter required members to be “honest and faithful to one another … and to make good and sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed in the towns and parishes of the neighbourhood”.

Fenwick survived on tweed and muslin weaving, shoemaking and farming and its tradesmen depended on patronage from the local elite. The late 1700s were a period of rapid change in the textile industry, with increasing pressure from agents and manufacturers to lower prices. Inspectors were employed to check the quality of work and prices – and it could be disastrous for a village to gain a bad reputation for quality, over-charging or late delivery.

It does not take much imagination to see the parallels between the pressures placed on the Fenwick weavers and the perils of today’s gig economy workers, whose livelihoods can be ruined by a few bad ratings and a damaged, digital, reputation.

The weavers’ society began by buying and sharing materials and looms in an effort to reduce operating costs for their members while still delivering a quality service. Together they were weaving threads into cloth, creating the materials the nation required for clothing and linen, quite literally weaving the fabric of society.

Today the term ‘thread’ has taken on another meaning: even the Oxford English Dictionary includes a second definition, after sewing and weaving, citing a thread as “a group of linked messages posted on an Internet forum that share a common subject or theme”. And it is here, in this new digital domain, that a renewed essence of co-operation is emerging.

As the body of collective knowledge available via the internet, and technological developments, expand exponentially delivering unforeseen changes to the fabric of today’s societies, the digital threads of collaboration are being teased out, untangled and woven into something better by a new type of co-operative weaver.

The internet has spawned a myriad of collaborative projects, the most notable of which are still Wikipedia, Firefox and Linux itself – the open source kernel which supports the majority of the internet. But, in general, effective large-scale online collaboration has been extremely slow to evolve. Instead we are presented with a cacophony of voices all vying for our waning attention and, despite our best efforts, we naturally gravitate into internet silos which hamper the cross-pollination of ideas and opinions. Plus, now publishing one’s ideas has become so easy, there is often huge overlap between disparate groups who share exactly the same vision, purpose and objectives but remain ignorant of each others’ existence, or unsure how they could collaborate when they do discover each other.

This is the realm in which the new generation of co-operative weavers are ‘shuttling’ the threads of disparate groups back and forth, curating and collating concepts and memes into more coherent tapestries. The Collaborative Technology Alliance highlights the objective: “There are many groups around the world working to deliver a more open, more collaborative and inclusive society. These groups are intention-aligned but remain disparate initiatives, which means they fail to benefit from the network effect.”

Imagine how much more effective we could be if the members of the Transition Network, NEON, Occupy, The Solidarity Economy, The Internet of Ownership, The Woofers, The Eco village Network and all the other hundreds and thousands of like-minded networks were actively collaborating on creating the type of society to which they all aspire. The network effect would be unstoppable.

The good news is that there are people working on uniting these groups and they are the new co-op weavers – people like Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholtz from the Platform Cooperativism movement; Michel Bauwens and all his excellent collaborators at the Peer to Peer Foundation; Francesca Pick and her fellow connectors at OuiShare; Arthur Brock and the other boffins behind Holo (the new alternative to blockchain); and Pia Mancini and the other hackers and makers behind Democracy.earth.

These are just some of the people that are using the warp and the weft of the world wide web to to weave a new fabric for our society; a fabric woven from the co-operative spirit which has been missing from our world for too long. Later this year, Open.coop is bringing together most of the above names – as well as a hundreds of other would-be-weavers – at the second Platform Co-op conference, OPEN 2018, which will take place in London in July.

Once the original Fenwick weavers got together in 1761 it was not long before they branched out into food and “victuals” by buying a sack of oatmeal at wholesale to sell to their members in smaller quantities at cut prices. Very soon they began lending money to needy members and their families, making the Fenwick Society the first recorded credit union in the world.

The story in Rochdale was very similar. The Pioneers decided it was time shoppers were treated with honesty, openness and respect, that they should be able to share in the profits that their custom contributed to and that they should have a democratic right to have a say in the business. Every customer of the shop became a member and so had a true stake in the business. When you think about it like that, and what transpired as a result of those pioneers, we would do well to recognise the new co-operative weavers of today and to assist them in every way we can.

  • For more information on OPEN 2018, and to book, click here
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