Vital stories bring together a world of co-operation

In harsh economic and political times, the Co-operative College has produced a book giving reasons for hope with authors Tony Webster, Linda Shaw and other academics.

In harsh economic and political times, the Co-operative College has produced a book giving reasons for hope with authors Tony Webster, Linda Shaw and other academics.

The Hidden Alternative goes back to a conference in July 2009, ‘Can values makes a difference?’. It looks forward to a similar event in July 2012, ‘Mainstreaming Co-operation, an alternative for the 21st century?’

The College is to be congratulated on its progress since the move back to Manchester. Serious business is being done with the Co-operative Group; co-operative colleges are being renewed in Africa and elsewhere; a full history of the Co-operative Wholesale Society/Co-operative Group by business historians is to be published by Oxford University Press; Co-operative College papers have been revived in accessible forms; the Schools Co-operative Society flourishes; and project succeeds project across the world. All this is underpinned by core funding so meagre that many educational institutions would have given up.

Working with their tea suppliers, Finlays, and the Department for International Development, the Group and the College are helping 8,000 smallholder tea farmers to form into five, farmer-owned co-operatives. These co-operatives will be assisted to become Fairtrade certified. They will then diversify into other products, with an outlet through the Group’s stores.

This is one of many hopeful stories in the book: making markets rather than worshipping ‘ the market’. An account of Graham Melmoth’s courageous leadership during the near-disaster of the 1997 Lanica take-over, serves as a reminder of just how central the Co-operative Group is to the future of co-operation and mutuality in Britain.

For 21st century co-operators, it really is too big to fail as a co-operative, or to succeed by becoming less of a co-operative. May governance arrangements appropriate to a charitable trust never succeed the complex democracies which constitute all large-scale co-operatives!

Group members may well need to fight during the next ten years to retain democratic access to the co-operative as a whole, rather than becoming trustees of an annually-declared, disposable surplus.

There is a sobering quotation in the editors’ opening chapter: “It is fair to say that the prevailing sense of the way in which co-operation offers an alternative to capitalism is as an alternative option within capitalism rather than an alternative to the system itself.”

How many Group members would settle for that? One option within a system which will always be predatory? Or a morally different, economically sustainable, whole way of life? Sustainability, rather surprisingly, is not central to The Hidden Alternative . The climate crisis is surely such that until co-operation and mutuality are offered as utterly different ways of making and doing things now, our children and their children will be in real trouble.

In the International Year of Co-operatives, with Rochdale named as the World Capital of Co-operatives and the Pioneers’ Museum re-opening this spring, the timing could not be better. The United Nations University Press co-published this book, to ensure its distribution will be as global as its contents.

Africa, India, Italy, Spain and China all receive proper attention alongside Britain. In the year in which we celebrate our Rochdale icons: Charles Howarth, warper, Oldham Rd; James Day, joiner, John St; John Bent, tailor, John St; Joe Crabtree, weaver, Toad Lane — we can honour the seven blacksmiths of Baoji in Shaanxi province who end this book.

In 1938 they set up the first Gung Ho co-operative in China. It is remarkable how co-ops and mutuals bring together diverse social forces. Joint resistance to Japanese invasion by the Kuomintang and the Communists was furthered by peasants and industrial workers arranging their own powers co-operatively.

In the book: “Lu Guangmian set about drawing up a skills register to divide the refugees into groups for training in co-operative principles and organisation. After two weeks, 12 co-ops had been established; after two months, around 40 were operating successfully, producing foodstuffs, blankets, towels, shoes, surgical cotton and gauze.”

Note that although “regulations governing the setting-up of a co-operative were subsequently drawn up” — action came first.

Mondragon is analysed by Fernando Molina and John Walton. ULGOR was set up in 1955 as the pioneer company in the iconic Basque co-operative. It was named from the initials of the five followers of Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta who founded it: Usatorre, Larranaga, Gorronogoita. This chapter gives solid content to Catholic social and mutual theology from which we still have much to learn. It reminds us of the centrality of technical/vocational education in the Mondragon story. Education, as Tom Woodin’s essay shows, is intrinsic to co-operation, not a bonus.

What is ‘education’? The question recurs in many chapters of The Hidden Alternative. Basque Catholics had their own ideas, with deep echoes of John Ruskin and William Morris concerning the dignity and future responsibility which attach to ‘labour’. It may be worth recalling that Owenite co-operators understood ‘education’ , ‘government’ (self-government not ‘the Government’) and ‘social science’ ( understanding society co-operatively) as meaning much the same thing.

Historians of global civil society will learn how crucial the despised 1950s are to co-operative history. The story of Irish credit unions needs retelling, rooted in that decade. My favourite instance from this book is the co-operative of self- designated intellectuals which, in 1952, grew out of the Civil Design Studio in Reggio Emilia, now a well known gathering ground for co-operatives and mutuals.

The 1952 initiative was known as Caire. It brought together architects, engineers, development planners and practical visionaries. It ‘may be said to have been born in the class rooms of the Milan Polytechnic’. The embryonic co-operative higher education impulse in Lincoln now known as the Lincoln Social Science Centre might wish to take heart. Lord (Blue Labour) Glasman’s ‘vocational economy’ will need to be full of self-governing educational associations and co-operatives.

‘Emilia became a local-territorial system, that is a physical, economic, cultural and political space which, not withstanding all its contradictions, was both “shared and divided”. It was a place where the wishes of the single actors moved according to a common rationale and were crystallised in a strongly recognisable form of self-representation. In this historical process the co-operative movement played a leading role’.

Why is this so riveting? In part because it adds modern heroes to inscribe on the bricks of the newly-opened Toad Lane museum in 2012: Osvaldo Piacentini, Enno Barbieri, Silvano Gasparini. More important, it makes people like me think. For 20 years before I became Principal of Ruskin College in 1989 I worked at the University of Sussex. I wrote about the history of co-operation; worked with the Movement in history workshops; was active in community campaigns and enterprises like the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers; was critical of state nationalisation and market penetration in higher education, of cuts and university management — but why didn’t my generation of intellectuals break away into productive co-ops of brainworkers?

Too often, maybe, ‘Left’ intellectuals fancy themselves in critical and advisory roles, drawing a regular salary, analysing ‘the state’ and ‘ the market’ in ways acceptable to Research Assessment Exercises, without bringing into being new states-within-the-state and products for new kinds of market.

Reading The Hidden Alternative left me wondering whether the Group and the College, on their part, could help. We need to bring together, for one year at a time, 100 bright young people in networks, ideas factories, think-tanks each consisting of 30 members.

They would report once a quarter on ideas for new products and services, new ways of doing what the Rochdale Pioneers wished to do, namely to ‘arrange the powers of production, distribution education and government’ for themselves.

When things worth incubating came up, small teams of co-operators could be funded to develop them as prototypes. Not the ‘policies’ which political parties manufacture, but practices like the Ecology Building Society, the Popular Hotel in Milan , the ‘Milanino’ Garden City, the agreement between the United Steel Workers in the USA and Mondragon . . . and so many other hopeful stories given space in The Hidden Alternative. As Ed Mayo concludes in this book ‘stories like these are vital’.

• Anthony Webster, Linda Shaw, John K.Walton, Alyson Brown and David Stewart eds. The Hidden Alternative — Co-operative Values, Past, Present and Future, Manchester University Press, 2011.ISBN: 9780719086564. £16.99. Readers can purchase the book for a special price of £10.00. They should contact NBN International on 01752 202301, or [email protected], quoting the reference CON558. 

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