Co-ops - not co-opted
For better or for worse and to a lesser or greater degree, formal and less formal co-operatives and collectives have been the structures in which I have always worked, whether as a volunteer or for-money.
In the early 90s I was heavily involved in living in and developing housing co-operatives in Brighton; by the late 90s I was working professionally in co-op development in Southampton; in the early 2000s we formed a co-operative company called Netuxo (yeah, this one!); in the 2000s we formed a loose wholefood buying collective in Hackney; and, between 2013 and 2015, I worked as a volunteer gardener at/with another of London’s worker co-ops – OrganicLea.
So it was particularly good to see friends and colleagues at both OrganicLea (https://www.organiclea.org.uk/) and also at Greencity Wholefoods (https://www.greencity.coop/) featuring so strongly in this years’ Co-operative Economy report (http://reports.uk.coop/economy2018/), which was released towards the end of last week and which provides an important reference point for many of the activities around the annual “Co-ops fortnight" and International Day of Co-operatives.
Once again, the report shows steady growth in the UK co-op sector, with a whopping 13 million members collectively and almost a quarter of a million people employed in their own co-operative entities. Whilst the report also reflects economic growth (not sure what I think about that), what interests me more is the increasing adoption of co-ops as an idea.
Our work, our future – we decide!
Like a lot of things, slowly the wheel comes full cycle, and what was perhaps once considered an archaic and niche mode of organising is now seen more and more as a viable way of working towards a more positive and sustainable future: for business without “bosses” and where the workers make the critical decisions about what happens (for better or worse indeed!): our work, our future – we decide!
“Cooperatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members.”
On a pragmatic level the model may become more appealing in light of the current neo-liberal capitalist project. I don’t think we should underestimate the quiet power of normalising the core values of co-operatives: voluntary, open, democratic, educating, autonomous, sustainable… (NB for whole sentences see: https://www.ica.coop/en/whats-co-op/co-operative-identity-values-princi…).
Seeping theses values and ideas into the “mainstream” – from their most liberal to most radical interpretations – has got to be a good thing, despite any anxieties about co-opting.
Disobey: their power comes from our obedience
Indeed, on the topic of co-opting, despite its relatively liberal position on many things, I think the UK LGBTQ organisation – Stonewall (https://www.stonewall.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/pride) – should be commended on its withdrawal of support for the now highly-commercialised and completely de-radicalised Pride event this year and for giving its support instead for Black Pride (https://www.ukblackpride.org.uk/).
Likewise the work of Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants (https://twitter.com/lgsmigrants) and their campaign to target the airlines that both sponsor Pride and are also involved in forcibly deporting people.
These are good messages being sent – they say “You can support a concept but you can’t take control of it and expect us to unconditionally and uncritically engage with it.” We can and we will do something else.
Being co-opted relies on passive participation and a willingness to accept a framework of norms, such as that we even have ,or would want to spend, those “pink pounds” on ridiculous products that we don’t need; that we care more about a “good”(?) party than the lives of refugees and migrants; that the white/male/monied/privilege should remain the dominant force within the world.
Er, no. Capitalism sucks. Refugees are welcome. Black lives matter.
We can do something else and better still, we are doing something else! Don’t wait for someone else to change things, DIY and do it with others who feel the same way.
For me, being in a co-op feels consistent with many of my other values and I’m happy to be in a working environment where those values are part of the fabric of what we do and with whom (https://netuxo.coop/en/about/ethos).
Along with the Pride events this weekend, this Saturday, 7 July, is “International Co-op Day” (https://ica.coop/en/events/international-co-operative-day) and I reckon the successes of the co-op movement, in the UK, in Spain and internationally, are something worth celebrating too. I plan to raise a glass (perhaps two...).
Do co-ops sound inspiring? If so, check out the short film at http://reports.uk.coop/economy2018/