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Demise of The Co-operative Group / Part 6 - The Implications

Updated on September 25, 2015

Does any of this matter?

Will the loss of the flagship of the UK co-operative movement impact anybody but a few Involved, Interacting, and Influencing Members?

Well, none of this really matters if neither co-operation nor the co-operative economy matter.

So, do they matter?

The co-operative economy only makes sense if co-operation itself makes sense. So, what, in a few short words, is the essence of co-operation?

For people inside the co-operative movement, co-operation offers a dignified and equitable working relationship among peers. It offers the opportunity to do away with the standard, undignified, "do as you’re told" hierarchical mechanisms which continue to drive us towards oblivion.

Western society claims to be the hotbed of democracy, but the bulk of our institutions, from educational establishments to places of employment, from public service to private enterprise, are "one way" hierarchical in nature – decisions flow down from the top. The bulk of our citizens fully expect to be told what to do for most of their working lives, each and every day. This is not a healthy basis for sustaining a full blown democracy.

Co-operation offers the facility to engage, on an ongoing basis, in constructive dialogue between all ranks and stations in an organisation. This is not to say, as many detractors would have it, that each and every decision is pored over by every member of the organisation. In fact, co-operation allows for and encourages delegation of authority/responsibility for specific task areas. In fact, good co-operation relies and thrives upon such delegation. The essential difference between co-operative organisations and "one way" hierarchical ones is that such decisions are reviewable, and that those wielding authority and responsibility are ultimately accountable, at regular intervals, to the broad base of those over whom they have been delegated such authority. If they are found wanting, their authority can be revoked.

If political democracy is not supplemented with economic democracy, the quality of the political democracy is substantially undermined. Only a body public confident and familiar, on a daily basis, with the intricate workings of collective responsibility and decision making can be expected to take up the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in the fullest sense.

Good thing?

Assuming, therefore, that co-operation may be a "good thing", it follows that co-operative enterprises may also be a "good thing". For all its failings, The Co-operative Group, long the flagship of the UK and global co-operative movement, has stood the test of time. It hasn't ravaged third world economies; it hasn't blighted local communities; it hasn't systematically destroyed fragile eco-systems; it hasn't (to date) accommodated unsettling speculation in its ownership which in turn hasn't created or contributed to boom and bust cycles.

The only “bad” thing you could say about it is that it has been slow in its decision making and ponderous in its execution of strategic initiatives. But in a world dominated by fast reacting, top-down driven standard-model speculator corporations, where has all that fast acting left us? A quick look around the planet will show you that taking a little longer over some of their decision making might have benefited us all. It will show you devastated third world coast lines and starving populations. It will show you clandestine dumps and dumping processes. It will show you bursting “bottom lines” as everything else collapses. It will show you that much of what they have achieved has been the result of fast acting strong arm tactics – including interference in the processes of national government, mostly abroad but, increasingly, on the home front as well (google “TTIP”). Co-operative corporations are simply not well-placed or constitutionally capable of acting in these ways - which was precisely the intention of their founders.

Good thing?

Assuming therefore that co-operative enterprises may be a "good thing", it follows that the co-operative economy may also be a "good thing". For people outside the co-operative movement, co-operation offers, through a more stable corporate model, a more stable economy. In general, co-operative ownership counters the western economy's “natural” centralisation of wealth which, in turn, marginalises the influence of speculation. This may not be of interest to billionaire speculators, their CEOs, and the political representatives they have bought and paid for, all of whom are forever under the cosh of chasing ever increasing profitability to the detriment of all other considerations. But it should be of profound and central interest to ordinary citizens who are not forever looking for opportunities to de-stablise and speculate.

And it should be of fundamental interest to economic development practitioners and strategists in both local and national government who are, or should be, serving the interests of ordinary citizens. For these people, the interests of their common rate payers should be paramount, and their rate payers will have a greater interest in local economic stability than in forever increasing profitability which, in any event, usually flows directly out of their communities and into the coffers of distant, largely indifferent, off shore shareholders.

This is where the co-operative economy offers such profound attractions. Generally speaking, co-operative ownership is local ownership, and if decisions about enterprise and economic activity are being taken locally, it is more likely that greater account will be taken of local circumstance. Job losses or environmental degradation, public transport or access to facilities, all are as important for the shareholders of (co-operative) enterprise as for their neighbours. This sort of merging of interest between commerce and community, between public and private is unique to co-operative enterprise. It is built into their constitutions, and into the international principles to which all co-operatives seek to adhere.

William Ophuls ("Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity ") points out that planning and design both attempt to achieve real world outcomes by influencing nature. The subtle but important distinction is that: "...planning refers to the attempt to produce the outcome by actively managing the process, whereas design refers to the attempt to produce the outcome by establishing criteria to govern the process such that the desired result will occur more or less automatically without further human intervention."

The co-operative economy represents an attempt to influence outcomes by design.

In so doing, it can take into consideration, through its Membership and its distributed ownership, all the shifting elements which constitute an economy and an eco-system. Standard-model speculator corporations simply cannot do this. They are vehicles specifically constructed for one sole and fixed purpose. They are blindly committed to eternally driving down costs (especially labour) and eternally maximising profit – the infamous “bottom line” (see “Bottom Liners”, same author). And this is to the complete exclusion of every other consideration under the sun.

So, does the co-operative economy matter?


.......only if you happen to be looking for a tried, tested (for 150 years), and proven corporate model that doesn't ravage everything that stands in the way of exponentially increasing “growth” and insatiable profitability which funnels wealth to an ever diminishing proportion of the human race and gifts them with the ever increasing power to manipulate the lives and eco-systems of everyone else.

tbc / Part 7 - Where do we go from here? be continued.

The Future - if we have not yet lost The Group


© 2015 Deacon Martin


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