People Over Capital: The co-operative alternative to capitalism – a review

people_over_capitalThe reader’s attitude to this book is likely to depend on what they think of the subtitle. Do you want an alternative to capitalism, and do you think co-ops can offer it?

People Over Capital is a book of essays on co-operatives put together in 2012 and published by New Internationalist. What makes it interesting is that some of the contributors think beyond current co-ops, which is to say, they don’t just offer more co-operatives as a full alternative to capitalism. Yet it is a mixed bag, for some of them, notably the writers of the foreword and introduction (Ed Mayo, Rob Harrison), are content to try to make co-ops the ‘dominant business model’. This doesn’t sound to me like an alternative to capitalism, and raises the concern that some promoters of co-ops are using radical-sounding lingo to make the co-operative movement seem more exciting than it is.

Thankfully Chapter 1 by Robin Murray immediately moves beyond the ‘dominant business model’ paradigm to discuss an entire ‘alternative economy’. In summary what this means is mutualising and localising finance, creating large industrial co-op networks to lower competitive market pressures, and providing care and other civic/social services co-operatively. Murray sees co-operativism as a ‘process’ that will change those involved in it, returning them to a more social mode of life. This seems true as far as it goes, but there is no path here by which the logic of co-operativism will trump the logic of capital.

But what about the next chapter ‘Can co-operatives crowd out capitalism?’, by Wayne Ellwood? He celebrates how well co-ops have done so far, and the more radical experiment of occupied Argentinian factories. And, er, that’s it, more or less. The question in the title is never answered.

Let’s skip forward then to Dan Gregory’s chapter ‘Towards a new economy based on co-operation’. His answer is more co-ops, lots more co-ops. Not just in the private sector but in the public sector too. This latter is controversial: some see it as a wedge to help break up public service provision, others think that co-operativism will be corrupted by too close a relationship with the state. Gregory sees it as a path that could be more efficient as well as more social. He closes the essay with an honest admission that what he is talking about is simply a different version of capitalism. Hmmm.

What about James Doran’s chapter ‘Working towards economic democracy’? This is getting more like it, for Doran seems to be hinting at a more radical programme than ‘more co-ops’. He suggests that all of corporate governance could be overhauled and worker ownership (and not just participation – actual ownership) become the norm. Here is an idea that strikes me as one that could change the dynamics of society and the economy significantly. He moves on to a discussion of re-embedding markets in society – the opposite tendency to that of neo-liberalism. This is a little short on details, but he discusses adopting the logic of the commons, the state being leveraged to create more common pool resources managed by their users. The final paragraphs also hint towards common media ownership and creating new ways for money to function. This needs a lot of fleshing out, but for the first time I get the sense of an economy that would function very differently from at present.

The book then moves onto discussing the use of new technologies to expand the co-operative ethos. All very worthy and likely worthwhile, but not in itself a game-changer. Robbie Smith does suggest the idea of a ‘co-operative currency’, but this turns out to be a ‘co-op pound’ interchangeable with the UK pound. This would not, I believe, have all the functions of a currency necessary to genuinely take democratic control of finances.

Steve Mandel’s chapter ‘Why we need to replace joint stock companies with co-operatives in the sustainable economies of the future’ is more in the vein of Doran’s chapter. It is not enough to propose co-ops as an alternative to normal companies, he explains. We must reform the governance of all economic actors, though he falls short of outlining what such a battle would look like. I find this idea interesting, for it seems to include the notion of class struggle within the co-operative movement, which has often been positioned as the alternative to class-based politics, even one that relies on the possibility of an illusory consensus between all actors in society. The democratisation of all companies could surely only happen through the siezure of assets from the owners, with the new owners being the workers rather than the state. Sadly, Mandel avoids talking about how this could actually happen, what strategies we might need for getting there.

Arianna Lovera (phew, a woman at last) gives us a chapter on ‘solidarity economics’ and alternative finance mechanisms. She discusses some alternatives already in place but admits that their position within the capitalist system means they are caught in all sorts of tensions, and cannot entirely escape the logic of capital. She admits this makes the experiments reformist rather than radical. She thinks nonetheless that these experiments may lead us somewhere better, though we might not know where that may be yet. Which is honest, at least, if unexciting.

The final section of the book is a critical one. David Leigh admits what should be obvious to anyone, that the co-op sector is never going to simply out-compete the corporate sector. For one thing co-ops will never be as rapacious, and for another their democracy becomes cumbersome and compromised at a scale where they could take on multi-nationals. Leigh has a positive message too however: that co-ops are the right place to give people experience in collaborative working and common ownership. They are a training ground for a less capitalist world, even if they don’t create that world alone. This is one of the advantages of co-ops I have always felt most strongly. How can we create a world run by ourselves if we have no experience in running anything for ourselves?

Chris Tomlinson puts the boot in rather harder to the co-operative dream. Co-ops have been co-opted by neo-liberal governments, he points out, to assist them in their privatisation agendas. Co-ops and standard companies often exhibit very similar behaviour and co-ops can even treat their workers badly. Market pressures, we must admit, seriously compromise the values of many co-ops, and the bigger they get the worse this effect becomes. Even if all co-ops could apply the 7 Co-operative Principles (and they often can’t for pragmatic reasons), they would not create an alternative to capitalism. Small co-ops may maintain a less capitalist ethos than larger ones, but usually only because they are surviving in a niche where other companies are not interested in competing with them.

So far so grim, but Tomlinson himself is a member of more than one co-op. Why? He too sees co-operatives as ‘incubators’. He quotes Kropotkin, who saw co-operatives as ‘experiments which prepare human thought to conceive of some of the practical forms in which a communist society might find its expression.’

Which again, I agree with, for a sufficiently flexible and no-statist value of ‘communism’, but I think this book does hint at how we might move beyond that. If we follow Doran and Mandel’s ideas of expanding co-operative ideas beyond simply wanting more co-ops, the movement can also be the launching pad for radical struggles against the status quo. There are some barriers to that at present. Many older co-ops are de-politicised or inward-looking, and there’s no reason to believe that co-ops set up today won’t adopt similar attitudes over time. I’d like to see co-ops with principles more political than simply the 7 Co-operative Principles, co-ops dedicated to fending off the market, to creating more common ownership, and bound into networks of economic solidarity, co-ops that are dedicated to more than just being co-ops, but to creating a more co-operative world.

I will add that people often find co-ops lacking if they are looking for the answer to the current economic dystopia we are living. It’s a rather religious search I think, to believe in a Holy Grail, a moment of Salvation, a Messiah, or a Noble Path. I don’t believe there is one answer, and so I see co-ops as an answer to some problems, and one available path with possible positive outcomes. That isn’t ambitious enough for some people, but if you’re going to reject co-ops because they aren’t the answer, it’s worth thinking about whether your stance leaves you waiting for paradise, or working towards a day of salvation that, on past evidence, is very unlikely to arrive. There are, of course, other practical paths to restructuring the economy that people might propose, and against which those accusations couldn’t be levelled – paths that may turn out to be more successful than a co-operative vision. I can’t help thinking though that any economy I would feel comfortable with would be a democratic one, and thus not a million miles from the ideals that drive the co-operative movement.

That’s the end of the review then, but here are a few ideas for more radical co-ops:

1. Making multi-stakeholder co-ops the more common form in order to prevent insularity and create more inclusive democracy.

2. Constituting all co-ops as part of larger federations so as to strengthen them, reduce market pressures and create broader co-operative cultures.

3. Building into the rules an obligation to use spare finances to help other co-ops or common ownership organisations.

4. Adding to the rules an objective of campaigning for a more democratic society, moving beyond market and state.

You can find more ideas for innovative and radical co-ops on the Open Co-ops website.

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