Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"There Is An Alternative To Capitalism" by Steve Thompson


United Nations

International Year of Co-operatives

There is an alternative to Capitalism

2012 will be a year of opportunity to demonstrate that alternative. Privatisation of resources, businesses and services, benefit the privileged few and reduce everything to the building of private empires of wealth and political power. Everyone else being pawns in the games of the private profiteers. Life is too precious for that.

The Co-operative Commonwealth

I do not claim to reveal a panacea in this subject of how we can all live together to create a social and physical environment which is conducive to health and wellbeing. It would be foolish to do so. But I can reflect upon the great work (with both its successes and failures) of the Co-operative Movement.

It had its origins in the time when people were being forced by poverty to move from the countryside to the towns to seek work in manufacturing and mining. These people were taken advantage of by the privateers of their day, the owners of the factories and the mines.

It was at this time that people were forced to seek an alternative for their very survival. The collectivist approach stirred in the minds of men. People clubbed together and formed co-operatives, and were sometimes inspired by benign and learned men like Dr. William King of Brighton. This was the beginning of a precarious and often unsuccessful Co-operative Movement. The organisation was patchy and insecure, but this nascent movement organised a number of Congresses.

The co-operative movement at this time was not cohesive, it was not until the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Co-operative Society was formed that the Co-operative Movement began to make some headway. An experienced co-operator who chaired the Rochdale Board, Charles Howarth, had evangelical zeal and was practical. Experience had taught him what worked and what did not work, he had been involved in a previous co-operative in Rochdale which had failed.

With the success of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, Charles Howarth and other members were being asked to help other communities to set up co-operatives. And these new co-operatives were teaching others still, so that co-operative societies were springing up everywhere and had the benefit of guidance which meant that they were less likely to make the mistakes that earlier co-op’s had made.

It is this sense of solidarity, mutual support and co-operation between all these disparate enterprises which make the Movement what it is.

But values and principles which the whole Movement could agree to were needed to unify the Movement. Co-operation cannot work in isolation.

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society formed in 1844 established principles for the Movement.

The Values & Principles of the International Movement in the 21st century are adapted for the modern world and agreed by all bona fide co-operatives, but they have their origins in the Principles first established in Rochdale.

The Rochdale Principles

1). Open membership

2). Democratic control (one man one vote)

3). Distribution of surplus in proportion to trade

4). Payment of limited interest on capital

5). Political and religious neutrality

6). Cash trading

7). Promotion of education

Experience and practicality over the ensuing years necessitated some changes.

For example, political neutrality is impossible when the Conservative Party exists to support the very anathema of co-operation, i.e. the private sector driven by personal aggrandisement and competition – the individualist philosophy. The Movement needed a political party which would be an advocate of co-operation, in due course

The Co-operative Party was born, and found an ally in the Labour Party.

Cash trading is no longer numbered amongst the Co-operative Principles.

A constant and very central principle for the Co-operative movement is the promotion of education. The early co-operatives had reading rooms before the advent of the public library. Lectures and classes were organised for the members. Many working class people in areas of depravation owe much to the co-operative movement for their educational development. Moreover, an educated membership was necessary for the continuance and development of the co-operative, after all, co-operatives are member run and member owned for the benefit of the members and the wider co-operative commonwealth. The directors and activists of the co-operative society are elected from the membership by the members. An aware and educated membership has always been very important, it is indeed the very foundation of the co-operative movement.

The dream of The Co-operative Commonwealth is the common ownership and control of the engines of society for the collective wellbeing of all people and a sustainable environment. This vision is so different from the world as it is, although the Co-operative movement has been making steady progress for two centuries, steady progress with setbacks from time to time. But the world is still Capitalist, there is a long way to go.

The Co-operative Group

The Co-op or as its businesses are now branded ‘The Co-operative’ is, of course,a co-operative. This means that it is guided by the Values and Principles of the Movement.

In capitalism, profits go to speculators who buy and sell shares on the stock market. The profits, in other words, go into private individuals pockets. The businesses are answerable only to a moneyed elite, their only purpose, profit maximisation.

The Co-operative is completely different.

Any surplus which the Co-operative makes is directed into fulfilling the purposes of the Co-operative Movement, guided by its Values and Principles and steered through a representative democracy, every member can play a part.

A percentage of the surplus is returned to the members, staff and communities in dividend or share of the profits as it is known.

Questions to ask when you trade with a business:

What is the purpose of this business?

For who’s benefit is this business operating?

If it is not a co-operative the answer to these questions will be; for private wealth accumulation.

A co-operative is a business which has intrinsic value, trades fairly and employs trading surplus to further the objective of collective wellbeing.

See here.

Steve Thompson


  1. Hi Steve,
    One can only wonder why Co-operatives are not at the forefront of the current Labour Party’s agenda. When it supports “Tory Cuts” and lacks direction, a clear focus and message Co-ops are recognised as having clear message of seeking to treat people equally and not for profit. It seems Tessa Jowell and Tristan Hunt Labour MPs are pushing Mutualism and Co-ops as an alternative to Capitalism re http://www.policy-network.net/publications/4078/What-mutualism-means-for-Labour
    Cheers Jon