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COOPERATIVES IN THE AGE OF CAPITAL

STARTING WITH OWENISM

John Restakis (4), a Greek Canadian, was, until recently, the Executive Director of the British Columbia Co-operative Association. He portrays in his recent book on Humanizing the Economy a story about how a revolution in human society that began with the rise of democracy in politics, as indeed portrayed in Yugoslavia, continues to unfold as the democratic idea struggles to find its place in the world of economics. If economic democracy is the hidden face of this ongoing revolution, then the history of the co-operative idea is its most durable expression.

The Welsh social reformer and industrialist, Robert Owen (5), in the early part of the 19th century, saw in co-operation the key to wealth creation and a just society. Unlike later Marxism, co-operativism did not reject the market as a source of social evil. Instead, Owen saw in co-operation a means of using the market to meet the needs of all members of society, not just the privileged few. Owen's first concern was the moulding of character through the transformative power of humanistic education. The creation of co-operative communities and human workplaces was an extension of this primary principle. It was also the foundation for one of Owen's most signal contributions to England's social and cultural development – the rise of education, especially among adults as a mechanism of social change.

William Thompson (6) was a fellow Irish reformer and political philosopher, for Restakis, who, even more than Owen at the time, established the intellectual foundations of the co-operative movement and early socialism. While being a friend of Jeremy Bentham his approach to utilitarianism was entirely different. Thompson saw utilitarianism as a social phenomenon, not a personal pursuit. It arose out of specific social conditions and from the nature of one's relations with others. And whereas Bentham defended private property and social hierarchy as preconditions to liberty and security, Thompson was a fierce critic of capitalism and all forms of subordination. For Thompson, the key to a just society was the alignment of self-interest with the interest of society, not the subordination of one to the other. How then to start?

THE ROCHDALE PIONEERS

William King (7) was born in Yorkshire in 1786, the son of a vicar. Unlike Owen, who was largely self-taught, King was a distinguished academic who studied political economy, moral philosophy and modern history at Cambridge, and then became a doctor and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. He settled in Brighton and gained valuable experience as a doctor ministering to the poor, but went from doing charity work to organizing a friendly society that he hoped would eventually allow the poor to do without charity and to meet their own needs through mutual insurance. The key for King was for workers to store up enough capital to gain control over their own labour. They must also generate enough of a surplus to be able to invest in their own enterprise. Possessing both labour and capital the workers can then do away with the capitalist altogether.

King advocated the establishment of a shop. Since people have to go to a shop every day to buy food and necessities, why not go to one they owned? The surplus from the co-operative shop would then go toward building the co-operative community that is the ultimate aim. The Owenite vision of a co-operative community is thus achieved gradually, from the patient accumulation of capital that comes from using the market in the interest of workers. It was then on account of King's practical and sage advice on the proper manner of running co-operative business, especially on the importance of carefully limiting credit and a dividend system based on the amount of business that a member conducted within the co-op, that the Rochdale store succeeded where so many had failed. The story of the Rochdale co-ops, then, shifts the focus from the creation of socialized communities as the means to reform society to the transformation of market relations in the service of social ends.

When it proved successful, the model became the blueprint for the largest, most durable and most successful mass movement for economic reform in history. It was here that the modern conception of the cooperative as a democratically controlled enterprise took form. And so it was that the small shop in Rochdale was opened in December 1844. The charter, along with the mission to open the shop and build homes had the following modest aim: "That, as soon as practicable, this Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government; or, in other words, to establish a self-supporting home-colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies." Ten years later the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 cooperatives. How then did the co-operative movement evolve in Europe over time?

STAGES OF CO-OPERATION

In its first stage then, lasting from 1817 to 1840, co-operation was at the heart of a visionary social impulse. Philosophers and activists struggled to develop the co-operative ideal of the good society and put the ideal into practice. It was a period when many were persuaded that co-operation was the gateway to a new millennium, a kind of paradise on earth. To this end, hundreds of co-operative communities were established in a grand social experiment spanning countries and continents to discover a model for a just and human society. Robert Owen was one of the pioneers.

The second phase of the movement was marked by a shift form the ideal to the pragmatic and by the successful application of the cooperative idea directly to the market by groups like the Rochdale Pioneers. This was in the period between 1844 and the turn of the century. Prior to the First World War the Raffeissen movement in Germany also took root, creating the co-operative credit societies that became a model for credit unions around the globe.

The third stage of the movement was the period from the First World War to the 1960s when the co-op model took root in countries the world over and expanded to fuel the creation of thousands of co-operatives in every sector of national economies. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia large sections of agriculture were transformed through co-operative forms of production that today retain a major share of agricultural production. In France industrial worker co-operatives finally established a bridgehead in manufacturing and sizeable consumer co-operatives arose. In Italy the co-operative movement developed a unique capacity to bridge sectors and to transform the manner in which the mainstream capitalist economy functioned across entire regions of the country. It was at this time too that credit unions, consumer co-ops and agricultural marketing co-ops took root in the U.S. and in Canada.

Co-op success seemed to come with the sacrifice of the unifying and comprehensive vision of co-operation as a medium for a just economy on a societal scale. Instead of challenging mainstream practice, many co-ops ended up borrowing from it. In many industrialized nations, the co-operative movement entered a phase of conservatism. Beginning in the 1980s, a new stage emerged for the co-operative movement. With the retreat of many governments from the support of public services that followed in the wake of cost-cutting and privatization in the 1980s and 1990s, co-operatives arose to fill the gaps in human and social services. Restakis then turns specifically to Bologna, and to the region of the world, as well as Europe, where co-operatives have exercised their greatest political and social, as well as economic impact.

 
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