Travelling the world to find a new co-operative commonwealth

'Constructing a commonwealth means insisting on principles while tolerating compromise'

Everything For Everyone: The radical tradition that is shaping the next economy, Nathan Schneider (Nation Books, 2018) £21.50 / US$28 CA$ 36.50

The notion of a global co-operative effort to democratise economies and meet the economic and environmental crises facing the world is an exciting one – but it begs certain questions. For instance, how do we convince young activists looking for an alternative that co-operativism is the answer? How do we link the small platform start-up in Europe and an agri-co-op giant in the USA into a single movement?

There are some answers in Nathan Schneider’s new book, where he looks for a new co-operative commonwealth. It’s a lively read, fizzing with ideas, mixing familiar reference points such as the Rochdale Pioneers with more obscure examples of co-operation, going back into prehistory, but it never loses sight of the seriousness of the task in hand. “If we’re to take on existential market externalities such as poverty and climate change,” he warns, “we need companies capable of seeing the world in the way people do.”

Times are promising for the co-op model. Schneider points out that it is well suited to digital ways of working, while grassroots activism has used the language of co-operation – from the Movement for Black Lives and environmental campaigners to the “upstart politicians” of the resurgent left like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

But he warns that while digital networks can empower peer producers, they are also leading to “unprecedented global monopolies and previously unimaginable feats of surveillance”. So how can the co-op commonwealth win the day?

To answer that question Schneider goes searching through history, and around the world. He finds co-operative ideas woven into the early Christian church – and draws a line to the unMonastery, a commune of tech researchers formed in 2014, which lived along Benedictine lines in the ancient Unesco site of Matera in Italy, where they tried to devise a better world.

The unMonks brought together a range of cultures – from art to protest – but although Schneider finds a lack of clarity to their project, he adds: “I don’t think we can … imagine a co-operative future without these errant, fumbling stories”.

He finds other historical models being revived by co-operators alongside the monastic tradition, describing how New York non-profit Prime Produce harks back to the medieval workers’ guilds to create – in its own words, “wholeheartedly organised co-op supporting entrepreneurs, educators, and artists who share values of service and hospitality”.

He ties these stories in with more familiar chapters from co-operative history – the radicalism of Robert Owen, George Jacob Holyoake or Horace Greeley; the co-operative response to the Great Depression in the 1930s; the strong element of co-operation in the African American civil rights movement, as inspired in the early 20th century by W E B Du Bois, and follows these threads to the present day, with platform co-ops and other co-op disruptors and entrepreneurs, or the activism of the Co-operation Jackson movement.

Prime Produce in New York

Can these ideals coalesce into a new co-operative commonwealth? Schneider sees contradictions, pointing to the “unapologetic consumerism” encouraged by major players like Coop Italia’s Ipercoop stores, or to the subsidiaries of multinational worker co-ops like Bologna-based SACMI where co-op values are not promoted.

But he adds: “Constructing a commonwealth means insisting on principles while tolerating compromise.”

And he argues that old established co-ops offer lessons to across the years to a new generation. ‘Co-operators today neglect the local, diverse, compromised legacies at their peril.”

In this article

Join the Conversation