Sunday, 9 March 2014

For A Political Revolution At the Co-op - Part 16

The experience of the Co-op Bank demonstrates the weakness of member owned Co-ops. A look at the experience of the Co-op in general offers a similar lesson. The Co-op started off as a progressive means of providing an alternative to capitalist retailing. Having been established by workers upon a socialistic ideology, the co-op stores also saw it as their role to provide decent conditions and pay for their workers. They were the first to provide workers with shorter hours and paid holidays; they set up various forms of welfare; and the co-ops also provided education for their members and for their workers, at a time before free state education. 

The Co-op International College
Partly, because the Co-op proceeded on this basis, the Co-op also quickly grew in size, as workers not only saw the benefit of buying from the Co-op, which offered quality products at lower prices, but also of supporting an organisation that was seen as in some sense belonging to them. The Co-op provided food, clothes, household goods, as well as all the other things workers needed such as funeral services and insurance. But Co-op Buildings were also central to working-class communities. They were where workers held their wedding receptions, dances, as well as meetings for their unions and labour parties. Although, the Co-op was established on a principle of opposing credit and debt, when times were tough, workers were able to pay for their goods when they got paid. The Co-op provided supplies for workers when they were on strike, most notably during the General Strike, when it also provided large sums of money.

In fact, during the General Strike, although the Co-op provided large-scale support for the unions it was not reciprocated by the TUC. The Co-op encouraged its workers to join unions, but when they asked for dispensation from the TUC to keep stores open, it was refused. But, although the Co-op had been innovative in its business, when consumerism developed after WWII, it quickly found that it was losing out to large new supermarket chains, and department stores. In many ways this mirrors the way the state-owned industries in the USSR had been effective in quickly bringing about industrialisation, but then foundered when it came to meeting the rapidly changing needs of consumers for a wide range of commodities. The answer in both cases, as a range of worker-owned businesses has demonstrated, would have been to capitalise on the knowledge and skills of the workers within the enterprise, but in both cases the enterprises were not directly owned and controlled by those workers. Its not a co-op, but the ability of the worker-owned John Lewis to outperform most other retailers is an example of this. 

As in the Stalinist states, the more the Co-op failed to be able to compete with growing capitalist competition, the more it was faced with throwing the burden on to its own workers. Co-ops have demonstrated that they are superior to capitalist enterprises, in almost every sphere, but that superiority is not uniform or guaranteed, and a major requirement is that the enterprise should be directly owned and controlled by its workers. A starting point for transforming the material condition of the workers, therefore, should be to transform all existing Co-ops into worker-owned and controlled co-ops. The Trades Unions, Labour Party and Co-op Party have an important role to play here. But, this shows how the rebuilding of the Labour Movement itself has to be undertaken on a wide front simultaneously.

Marxists should argue in the trades unions, Labour Parties and within the Co-op Party, for such a perspective. The events at the Co-op Bank should be the lever used to open up this debate, and to point to why it is only by direct ownership and control that workers can exercise the kind of oversight of co-op management required to prevent the development of a self-serving bureaucracy. Many trades unions and labour parties have bank accounts with the Co-op Bank, and pressure should be brought to bear for the Co-op itself to agree to such a change in its structure. The trades unions and labour parties should encourage their members to join and become active in the Co-op itself, so as to put forward motions calling for such a transformation to a worker-owned rather than member-owned co-op. The trades unions should, particularly encourage their members who work in the Co-op to become active as members, to bing about such a change. It is far better for the Co-op to be a part of such a transformation, than as is now happening with the Co-op Bank, for it to be taken over by hedge funds and financial speculators.

But, a much greater transformation is required than this, as I will set out next.

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