Comment: Rochdale cooperative myths

 Comment:  (Is there a Mutual Road to Economic Democracy?)

  As the UN year of the cooperative comes to a head the cooperative movement in Britain which is overwhelmingly dominated by the consumer cooperatives is holding a Co-operatives United event in Manchester.  Cooperatives are getting a bit more media attention than is usual. 

An often repeated statement  is that the Rochdale Pioneers founded the cooperative movement in  31 Toad Lane by opening a shop in 1844 Saturday December 18th.  At best this is only is only in  part true and  is  questionable.  It serves the purpose of promoting one aspect of  what cooperatives are and perhaps  masks other aspects.  This  questioning should not detract from the admirable achievement of the Rochdale Pioneers.  An other current of the cooperative movement if  this term is to be used, are the producer or worker’s cooperatives.  Cooperatives are what people do with them but in their origins they were and still can be a movement as is indicated in the name the Rochdale Pioneers gave themselves ” The Rochdale Society of  Equitable Pioneers”, this name points the direction of intent,   autonomous self-help based on fair enterprise; the term “socialist” arose at the time and was synonymous with cooperation. Ironically it was “Lord” Tibbett  who reminded his audience in the house of “Lords” that the Pioneers had got their cooperative off the ground themselves and had not depended on any hand outs or hand ups; however their original aims were socially transformational, something Tibbett does not take into account, forgets  or  does not  understand, social fairness.  Another aspect is that the Rochdale cooperatives emerged successfully after some twenty years of cooperative activity and a host of failed experiments, usually cooperative villages which Robert Owen inspired. Some more modest cooperative shops fared better and some ran for a while.  

An important influence upon the Rochdale Pioneers was William King the ‘poor people’ s doctor”  from Brighton.  A key suggestion of his was that co-operators needed to raise their own seed venture capital.  This the Rochdale Pioneers did raising £28 a substantial sum for  twenty-eight founder members, mainly weavers.  They also designed incentives through their dividend system to customer members and laid down a model that worked and perpetuated .  Their inspiration was “utopian”  and based on  Robert Owen’s ideas of which the shop would likely be only part of a more ambitious scheme. They were also lucky in there timing; the “hungry” 1840s was tough time for working class as is recorded by Dickens and Engels.  The Rochdale pioneers launched before a slump set in which allowed their shop to establish itself .  Within a century the consumer cooperatives  patterned on the Rochdale model had 28% of retailing in Britain plus a host of other services, a considerable achievement from humble origins.  Since then they have declined but perhaps the consumer cooperatives are in the process of re invention and a new phase of re-growth is at hand.

  It is difficult to date with exactness when the cooperative movement started or which were the first cooperatives, they originated from friendly societies as did other mutual forms and  trade unions.  Acting mutually or cooperative is an aspect of the range of human ( and other creatures) social relationships and is often an aspect of association between peasant farmers who help each other to bring in harvests, share fodder in times of shortage and manage common pastures through stewardship associations.  This ethos was taken into to new industrial towns formed by a combination of  factors, the enclosures which swept many from the land  towards the end of the eighteenth  in the early nineteenth century  growing industrialization based on machine manufacture which undermined  cottage craft industry.    The small self sufficient farmers often also cottage weavers were driven into the growing industrial towns where they were forced to selling the only thing they had, their labour to the mill owners.

   Another aspect often forgotten in the modern age of internet communication is that people  relied on much more direct communication and association. The  majority of the population would  assemble together in churches and chapels.  Religion then was an important aspect of people’s lives and when the workers and the poor were discriminated in the established church they declared their autonomy by setting up their disestablished chapels, places where they could act with independence and  dignity.  One of the paradoxes is that the more people have or own as private entitlement or property the more defensive, exclusive they become, gripped by a paranoid meanness and isolation.   People with little are more likely to share the little they have as a matter of course .  The sharing then done was formalized by voluntary association, the basis of cooperation, mutual and union activity.

  Cooperation and union like association allows several people to put their efforts or scare resources together, enabling things to be done that as individuals they can not.  This  needs a  favorable culture, attitudes and practices that support  mutual  enterprises.  Can this be recovered, perhaps in  updated forms for dealing with contemporary problems?

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