Co-operatives – a heterogeneous category

Co-operatives – a heterogeneous category

As a previous blog commented, Cooperantics was lucky enough to get a ticket to the Rebellious Media Conference in London last autumn, headline speaker Noam Chomsky amongst a lot of other illustrious participants.

After hearing the recording of the Q&A session on the published DVD, I had some further thoughts on Noam Chomsky’s reply to my question: Can the co-operative business model succeed where the capitalist business model has so evidently failed?

 His answer was as ever, thoughtful and informed. He said that yes, of course the co-operative business model can succeed, and has a long history of success, in Britain and other countries around the world. However he qualified this by describing co-operatives as a ‘very heterogeneous category’. He went on to explain that there are co-operatives where the participants really run it and there are co-operatives and worker owned enterprises where control is handed over to management. Referring to Mondragon, Chomsky described it as ‘worker owned but not worker managed’.. ‘they pick professional managers who act like professional managers’ and ‘they are investing overseas to exploit super cheap labour, not the kind of thing we’d like a progressive institution to do’.

 Noam Chomsky was accompanied on the platform by Michael Albert, a leading authority on political economy, U.S. economic policies, and the media. Michael Albert primarily focuses on matters of movement-building, strategy and vision, creating alternative media, and developing and advocating his participatory economics vision (“Parecon”).

Michael Albert had recently attended a meeting in Argentina with representatives of 50 occupied factories. At the start of the meeting there was a go round where people were telling their stories. At the start the mood was upbeat, but by the 4th or 5th person the mood became maudlin and by the 7th person people were crying. ‘I never thought I’d say anything like this’ said the 7th person to speak ‘but we took over workplace, we equalised wages, we instituted democracy but now many months later it feels the way it felt before, it’s alienating – maybe Margaret Thatcher was right there is no alternative’

 Michael Albert said that their mistake was to keep the old divisions of labour, which over time distorted their intention to be different, to be humane. This left them so demoralised they thought change really wasn’t possible.

 He concluded that yes, co-ops can be an important part of a project to change society but only if there is an understanding – not just a desire, but the understanding – that will cause the co-op to be a truly exemplary institution.

 I was sad to hear about the situation in the Argentinian co-ops, because they are so frequently used as an example of what can happen when working people take control – and I wonder if it is truly the case that in all instances they have retained the old divisions of labour?  But what a great answer and it is one we know already – it’s not enough to have the right legal structure, the right market conditions and the financial & human resources in place.

 For a co-operative to be a ‘truly exemplary institution’ there must be an understanding of how to work together within the legal structure and an understanding by managers that their role is a function like any other and does not confer any special status. Members also need to understand the rights and responsibilities of membership as well as how to work as a team, how to take decisions and delegate, how to hold management accountable, and lastly but most importantly, how to ensure participation and thereby commitment.