Humanizing the Economy

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Book Review: Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, John Restakis

‘Learn as we go’ might be enshrined as one of the emerging principles of Cultivate. We’re pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps in terms of how to farm, how to sell food, how to run a business… and pretty much everything else! And it’s a lot of fun, and a great education. This post is part of my own personal efforts to educate myself specifically on the subject of co-operatives. Having suddenly found myself being the director of a co-op, in the International Year of Co-ops, it seems a little background reading is in order.

It wasn’t taken for granted from the start that Cultivate would be a co-op, but of all the ways in which we could have organised ourselves, the co-op form became the obvious fit for what we wanted to achieve. Up until then, though, ‘co-op’ for me had mostly meant the supermarket that was marginally preferable to Tesco’s. The word also evoked a warm smell of spices, and images of jars of loose-leaf herbs and teas in the colourfully-painted wholefoods shop my parents used to go to on Mill Road in Cambridge, a workers’ co-op. How co-operatives worked, or what they might have the potential to achieve wasn’t something I’d dwelt on much. And for all that I’d been thinking about sustainability, co-ops had never been anywhere near the top of my list of potential strategies for solving environmental problems

Surprising as it may be to those who lived through the co-operative expansion period of the ’60s and ’70s, when shops like the one of my childhood appeared in the bohemian quarters of British and American cities, co-operative ideals don’t have a high profile these days, at least until recently. There is a knowledge gap across our whole society about this alternative model of business. But now is a timely era for a renaissance! Events like the UN Year of Co-operatives go some way to sparking up a conversation, and luckily I find there are books out there to help on the quest. First on the list, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, by John Restakis, published a few years ago in Canada and recently reviewed by fellow Oxford co-operators New Internationalist magazine in their co-ops special issue. The first few chapters provide a potted history of the origins of the co-operative in the rapidly industrialising England of the mid-19th century, followed by a world-hopping tour of co-ops today, which makes up the majority of the book.

For the reader unaccustomed to finding many chinks of humanity within the machine of the modern economy, the examples Restakis surveys are inspirational and encouraging. There is an exploration of the North Italian region of Emilia Romagna, Italy’s most prosperous region, where 8,000 small to medium size co-op enterprises account for 40% of the region’s gross domestic product. Here, a long history of co-operatives plus a politicised populace and institutional support, have led to a thriving mixed economy with close links between co-op and capitalist firms. In Italy as a whole, co-ops control 38% of the retail market, which is a story not unusual in the rest of mainland Europe especially in food retailing. There is hope yet for the UK, where 97% of grocery sales are rung through the tills of supermarkets accumulating vast profit for the few while giving little back to local communities and economies.

The book then goes on to ask whether co-ops offer a more caring and effective alternative to a stark choice between public and private health and social care, again referring back to the northern Italian city of Bologna, where 87% of the city’s social services are provided through municipal contracts with social care co-ops. Unlike workers co-ops, and more like Cultivate, these social co-ops are explicitly set up to pursue the general community interest, providing reciprocity, equality and accountability not offered by either state or private systems. Lest you are thinking that the book is a dreamy homage to Italian community values, however, there is also a healthy dose of critique and a realist and in-depth analysis of the possibilities and limitations of Italian co-ops.

Leaving Italy behind, Restakis takes us further afield to Japan’s pioneering Seikatsu Club, a consumer co-op association campaigning for and providing safe, healthy food to 300,000 members in 19 prefectures across Japan, and just one organisation in a wider co-op movement with more than 11 million members. Thence to India to see how co-ops are improving the lives of sex workers in Calcutta’s Sonagachi red-light district; a laudatory but critical look at the role of co-ops in the growing market for Fairtrade goods, focusing on tea-growers’ co-ops in Sri Lanka; and finally we touch down in Argentina during the financial collapse of 2001.

If there’s a utopian image to represent the flowering of the co-operative form from the ashes of an exploitative capitalist economy, it is surely Argentina’s fabricas recuperadas, the recovered factories. As the currency goes into freefall and the corrupt owners flee from their failing industries, the factory workers take over and decide that they can run the show without the bosses. The poster child is the former Zanon ceramics factory, transformed into a co-operative called FaSinPat – Fábrica Sin Patron, or Factory Without Bosses – which within 4 years of the take-over almost doubled production, hired more workers and cut the rate of accidents from 300 a year to 33. Most starkly, under the previous ownership an average of one worker died every month – as FaSinPat there was not a single death, a powerful illustration of the centrality of the human being in co-operative enterprises. It would be interesting to know what has become of FaSinPat since the book was written a few years ago.

Argentina’s recovered enterprises are relatively few (around 200 in all) and still young – the verdict is still out on their success. Restakis is realist about the challenges that face them, particularly in terms of creating adequate forms of managerial structure to allow their long-term success. As in the rest of the book, what is perhaps lacking here is a synopsis of where these inspiring but still isolated beginnings of a more co-operative economy may go from here. I would have liked to have read a final chapter bringing together the threads of resistance, hope and pragmatic action that run through the book, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the movement and the options for strengthening and more deeply establishing a cooperative economy. As if evading the question, Restakis instead uses the final section to zoom out to the wider social and ideological currents of our times, locating the roots of our current malaise in a near-hegemonic cultural individualism and an accompanying neo-liberal mantra put to the service of capital through profoundly undemocratic global institutions like the WTO and IMF. While this is a critical and potent insight (though not a new one), what his conclusion does not do is bring the power back into our own hands as individuals and members of civic society. What ran through the whole book for me was the power of ordinary people to heal and create communities even in the face of global powers we feel unable to influence. My own personal concluding thought from the book was found under a folded down corner some 30 pages from the end:

“…co-operatives generate social capital even as they draw on it for their sustenance. Their use of reciprocity means that trust is regenerated and repaid both to their constituent members and to the surrounding society. The more that trust is used as the basis of social exchange, the stronger it becomes. Co-operatives… are like batteries that recharge a society’s capacity to link people together, establish networks of mutual trust and undertake collective action around shared goals. In short, to behave like healthy societies ought to behave… The relational imperative that these organisations run on teaches individuals not only how to work with others, but at a more intimate level, how to identify their own interests and well-being with that of others. Co-operatives socialise individuals without extinguishing their individualism. If any social form were the ideal template for remaking society in the midst of rampant individualism, it is the co-operative.

Amen to that. It’s hard to read this book and remain unmoved by the potential of co-operatives. Emerging from 288 pages having had a world tour of the amazing, mould-breaking things co-ops are doing, I had to return to my own journey into co-operation. Why do co-operative ideals have such a low profile? Given that co-ops might offer one of the few convincing and potentially viable alternatives to business-as-usual- 21st century capitalism, why are people not shouting from the rooftops? Reading about the relational imperative, about trust and reciprocity, it struck me that this intrinsic humanness is completely unlike any other kind of historical revolution. Co-ops depend on relations between people – co-operation is about working together, often slowly, without claiming to offer any totalising ideological solution. The end of the 20th century was characterised as a battle between competing ideologies – of capitalism vs. socialism, right vs. left. But the trajectory of the cooperative movement, says Restakis early in the book, “was characterised by localised, smaller-scaled efforts to understand and control market forces towards social ends… Co-operativism, in general, stayed away from a program of political control. It had little interest in state power. Its focus was social and practical.” For Restakis, the ultimate concern of co-operatives with “the hard, patient work required for making economics an open, democratic and ethical field for human endeavour,” is one reason why they have failed to occupy centre-stage in the search for an alternative future, eclipsed first by the socialist project and more recently by anti-globalisation and anti-capitalism. But the quiet, hard-working and humanistic nature of co-operativism also makes it uniquely resilient. It is by its nature grassroots – a slow-building wave of change for the better. Maybe it is time to start shouting, just a little bit louder, about this positive vision for the future.

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Further reading + watching
New Internationalist Magazine
The Take, a film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein about the Fabricas Recuperadas
The Campaign for Cooperation
What is a co-op?