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Taking 'perhaps' seriously: the resurgence of the British co-operative spirit

"Ahem. Can we all please stop co-operating with each-other?" This was Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, at the pressure group's annual lecture on Monday night. We audience members in the Kings College London auditorium co-operatively curtailed our various interactions, and turned our attention to the speaker, Richard Sennett, a sociologist who has spent the last half decade exploring, in his words, “the skills human beings possess to make a life together”.

He opened by taking us back to the musee social, a think-tank set up in the late 1800s as a kind of social laboratory for modern France. Two sides were slogging it out – what Sennett calls the ‘political’ and the ‘social’ left. The former won, in his eyes, and has dominated in the more-than-century since. Top-down, policy-focused, the political left perceives relationships as a means to an end. The social left meanwhile, where human connection is regarded as an end in itself, has suffered neglect. Drawing on his new book, ‘Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of co-operation’, the lecture was a call to redress this balance, and a hopeful assertion that the wheels are already in motion, particularly in Britain.

Why does Sennett, a professor both at New York University and the London School of Economics, see Britain, not America, as the new homeland for the social left? Ironically enough, he pointed to our language, much mocked by Americans for its stumbling timidity. We Brits are much better, it seems, at 'subjunctive expression', one of the three key co-operative skills highlighted in ‘Together’. While Americans are experts at declarative expression ("I believe X, Y and Z"), the British with our “perhaps”, “I think”, "it might be” create a space for communication that in turn encourages the second ‘dialogic’ skill: that of listening not to the words, but the intention behind them. The third co-operative skill singled out as key is the ability to empathise. 

On these terms, our political class is more at home with the yanks, and Sennett grimaced as he remembered sneaking into one of Blair's 'listening expeditions'. "Not once did he say 'what do you mean?' 'tell me more?' 'that's interesting'". He saw this as the same kind of arrogance as he faced on this latest trip to London, when an "un-named think-tank" asked him to advise them on “what policy could be implemented to encourage co-operation”.

For Sennett, this is a question without an answer. The solution rather lies in each of us developing the skills of "informal sociability". Britain, he said, "for so long abused by government" had a rich history of developing these skills.

The panel on Monday night was evidence of this in itself, with Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK and Hannah Worth, director of Birmingham’s ‘think-and-do’ tank the Chamberlain Forum, joining Lisa Nandy MP and Guardian columnist Deborah Orr. While Mayo questioned the split between the social and political left, “these are often the same people, on different days”, he agreed that there has been a recent renewal of confidence in co-operative models, drawing on a uniquely co-operative British spirit. Predictably, Labour MP Nandy, as a representative of the ‘political left’, defended central policy as essential to fostering co-operation. More interesting was Worth's account of the ‘structured dialogue method’ practiced by the Chamberlain Forum, where personal experiences are shared in a story circle, and a theory is shaped collectively that then feeds into local policy formation. Just one way that Sennett’s ‘dialogic skill’ is being employed at a community level to influence decisions at a policy level.

So, did I leave buoyed by the belief that Britain is on its way towards rediscovering its deeply embedded history of mutuals, co-operatives and friendly societies? There has without doubt been a resurgence of interest and activity around alternative forms of organisation and economic models in recent years. The loss of trust in politicians in thrall to the market, and the increased ease of non-hierarchical organisation through the new technologies have laid the ground for a post-crash era more naturally predisposed towards the 'social' than the 'political' left. Occupy is one manifestation of this, the growth of the co-operative economy since 2008 another, as are the many on-the-ground initiatives springing up in response to austerity and privatisation (as with the audience member who spoke to us about opening the very first Co-operative Academy). 

The best formulation of the challenge ahead was put by Orr, speaking about Alcoholics Anonymous. People go in thinking ‘I’m not like these other guys’, she said, but the first thing they tell you is to concentrate on what you share, not on the differences. That’s why it works: through speaking, listening, co-operation. If only the Coalition had employed the structured dialogue method, working with AA members to formulate their policy on alcohol sale and consumption. Instead they brought in the cheap booze tax, propped by the ancient myth that over-consumption is a problem of the beer-swigging lower classes.

But our politicians better hold on tight to their polling papers; Compass' event showed above all else that the social left is on the move.

About the author
Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and Co-Editor of OurKingdom.

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