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.

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