“The Reproduction of the Culture of Cooperation” by Tadit Anderson May 1st 2009

If establishing cooperatives was as simple as posting the Rochdale Principles and applying them as a recipe, then building successful cooperatives would be easy. What made the Rochdale Pioneer Cooperative model noteable both in its time and now, is that it sustained itself financially and culturally for more than a few years. The history of cooperatives is littered with the wreckage of cooperatives that failed as sustainable businesses or as cooperative cultures, or both.

The cultures of many “cooperatives” tend to have a split personality, between their fictions of being progressive and their actual practices. This is one result of living in a society where the authoritarian corporate culture has been accepted as the standard. Many cooperatives become Ponzi schemes by default, which part the unaware and unwary from their hard earned income and their good will. The core obstacles are the faulty reproduction of cooperative culture and the inadequate adaptation of basic good business practices. Some nominal cooperatives even begin from the pretext of cooperation as primarily a marketing ploy as a further adaptation of the corporate model. In other examples the value of the cooperative culture will be rapidly sacrificed rather than disclose the reasons for sustaining poor financial management and planning. Along with suspending the culture of cooperative economics comes the failure to capture the financial efficiencies of treating management as a shared function and responsibility, rather than a position to be filled.

The usual sketch of the origin of cooperatives begins and ends with the Rochdale Cooperative Principles and a thumbnail description of the Rochdale Pioneers. What is now known as the Rochdale principles were abstracted well after the cooperative of the Rochdale Pioneers was established. This suggests that we can also use these principles as aids to describe the cooperative culture which was the basis of the success of the Rochdale Pioneers. The conventional approach to these principles uses a type of historical explanation which emphasizes the details of the people, places, wars, things, dates, and so on. This celebrity version of history pulls our attention away from the important synergies within the cultures of social change and innovation.

The Rochdale Pioneers Cooperative was a mutual aid society which developed out of the early English labor movement in the late 18th century into the first half of the 19th century. The Rochdale cooperative founders were flannel weavers who were striking against mill owners to preserve their craft and their ability to support themselves. The living and working conditions of the English peasants and craftworkers in this period was nearly as bad as the conditions that pressed the French to the 1789 French Revolution. The English elites and their government reacted to the admiration in England for the French Revolution with suppression that was often violent. As a result, the English labor movement had to disappear into secrecy and into forms which remained legal. The response of US President John Adams to authentic labor and democratic activism, was very much like his English counterparts. He and his allies passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress support of and admiration for the French Revolution in the United States The much celebrated “industrial revolution” was well served by this same counter-revolution.

Robert Owen is usually offered as the designated celebrity for cooperatives, even though his leadership was authoritarian and paternalistic. It was really the people of the English labor movement who extended the mutual aid model to include the workplace and supplying themselves with consumer goods. Unfortunately these people are usually described as “Owenites” by historians. The Rochdale Pioneers clearly saw themselves as pioneers in a different way of managing and supporting their communities. Ignoring the labor movement origins of cooperatives or equating cooperation with authoritarian and paternalistic leadership perpetrates a violence against cooperative cultures.

The practices of economic democracy which characterize authentic cooperatives owe much to the civic culture of the early English labor movement. The definition of “cooperation” as conformity to the authoritarian, corporate model is alien to this egalitarian civics. Cooperative membership is by principle open and voluntary, not exclusive. The principles also call for democratic control by membership on a one member, one vote basis. On the financial side this requires regular independent financial audits. On the political side, the processes must also be transparent and accountable. This includes that meetings of elected board members must be open and accessible to members, that the counting of ballots for elections must be also open and transparent, and that minutes be taken at meetings so that policy decisions can be carried forward, reviewed, and decisions representing negligence and malfeasance can be traced.

The economic participation by members and their related financial responsibility to the cooperative includes member capitalization. Any patronage refunds returned to members would require full financial transparency and accountability. Increasing the level of financial literacy of the board and the membership needs to be integrated into a cooperative membership education program. An informed membership will understand that operating as a “cooperative” does not exempt that organization from the expectation of transparent and good business practices. Any assumption that membership in a cooperative requires any less vigilance than what would be prudent for any owner of a business is an investment in passivity and wishful thinking.

The principle that cooperatives act as autonomous organizations and be supportive of their communities does not validate special relationships with businesses or other organizations that do not place the best interests of the cooperative membership first. Substituting authoritarian corporate patterns of leadership and evading transparency and accountability in an association organized to operate as a cooperative accomplishes a subversion. Member education is not an opportunity to exploit members and possible members with false confidence and ungrounded idealism for the sake of a marketing advantage. When financial conditions turn difficult, member education is often eliminated in the name of fiscal “conservatism.” This lesser subversion leaves members less prepared to judge whether their business is being properly managed or whether the board and management is actually acting in the interests of the membership.

Every noteable moment, thing, place, or person acquires its significance from the culture and complexity that produced them, and made them noteworthy. The celebrity view of history focuses on the white knights charging past and excludes the interests, contributions, and capacities of ordinary people. Interpreting history as if it was accomplished by executive initiative reproduces dependencies and a simplistic sense of causality. This results in conditioning that also reduces our perception of the possibility of authentic progressive change.

The historical innovation of consumer cooperatives can best be interpreted and understood by using the culture and context from which they developed. Reproducing in the present the possibility of cooperative cultures and progressive change requires ordinary people to work together to do both ordinary and extraordinary things. Local cooperatives can also self consiously examine themselves to discover whether they are sustainable as businesses and as cooperative cultures. The cooperatives that have split personalities can use this deeper understanding of the cooperative culture of the Rochdale Pioneers to merge their values and practices to a more progressive effect. Hopefully this will occur without serial financial tragedies or the abuse of the good faith provided by cooperative members.

Primary source: E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class , Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, copyright 1963 by E. P. Thompson


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