Co-operatives have been described as freshwater fish in a saltwater environment. In the 1930s, the co-operative sector in many countries was very powerful but it was destroyed by fascist and communist regimes. What was it that the authoritarians found so threatening in co-operation? Alternative economic models like co-operatives and social enterprises are explored, together with the arrangements that can help sustain them, like co-operative federations and support networks. However, there are no panaceas – co-ops and social enterprises fail too.
As I have been at pains to point out, the role of the entrepreneur is an idealisation and there is not a simple picture. While a very large proportion of entrepreneurs are crooks, especially in elite positions, this is by no means true of everyone. For example, a book by Claudio Sanchez Bajo and Bruno Roelants, shows that, during the economic problems of the last few years, co-operatives have had fewer problems. This is because there are less perverse incentives and co-operatives have less scope for control fraud by their managers because of the shared ownership, participative management and better integration with communities and other stakeholders.
Cooperatives tend to have a longer life than other types of enterprise, and thus, a higher level of entrepreneurial sustainability. In [one study], the rate of survival of cooperatives after three years was 75 percent, whereas it was only 48 percent for all enterprises… [and] after ten years, 44 percent of cooperatives were still in operation, whereas the ratio was only 20 percent for all enterprises. (Bajo & Roelants, Capital and the debt Trap. Learning from Co-operatives in the Global Crisis, 2011) (p. 109)
The fact is then, that entrepreneurs are of many different types, with many different motivations and standard economic theory tells us almost nothing that would help to understand them. In a study based on 26 Czech and 45 British social enterprises, Nadia Johanisova finds that the most important success factor is motivation. The motivation of social entrepreneurs is not for money or fame but more for self-fulfilment, commitment to place where they have roots and an opportunity to make a difference. Johanisova comments:
This casts doubt on economic theory which assumes financial motivation to be the principal incentive for work….The social enterprises profiled in this report defy conventional economic wisdom in other ways as well: (1) by definition their remit stretches beyond the financial to the social and/or environmental, (2) they are need as well as market driven and may juggle diverse activities instead of specialising, (3) more than half do not particularly wish to grow beyond their current size… Yet they survive and sometimes thrive in an unforgiving environment. (Johanisova, 2005, p. 93)
Co-operatives would have been a lot further forward had not their gains been brutally repressed, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s, by the fascist and communist governments. In her book, Johanisova describes the incredible achievements of the Czechoslovak co-operative movement up to the 1930s. Over decades, small credit co-operatives in rural areas called Kampelika had become an important part of village life. Despite the voluntary and amateur nature of the administration of the Kampelika, they were efficiently run and were able to eliminate rural usury, educate farmers about accounting and thrift, purchase farm machines for members, install scales in villages to check weights, plant trees and organise cultural events. They complemented other co-operatives i.e. marketing, processing, flour mills, distilleries and so on. They also played a major role in the development of an electric grid connecting 15,000 villages. (Johanisova, 2005, pp. 28-29)
The psychopaths strike back – what they find so threatening in co-operation
This entire movement then disappeared almost without trace because of the Nazis and then, subsequently, the communist regime. Pat Conaty and Michael Lewis draw on a book by Johnston Birchall to describe how similar set-backs occurred in other countries in the interwar period. In Italy, Mussolini seized the assets of 8000 Italian co-ops and took them over, killed leaders and burned shops. In Russia, Lenin repressed them but allowed them to revive before Stalin destroyed agricultural co- operatives (providing 65% of food provisions) in favour of forced collectivisation. Urban co-ops were then closed in 1935. In Germany, Hitler seized their assets and nationalised 1100 consumer co-ops, 21,000 credit unions, 4000 co-op savings banks and 7000 agricultural co-ops. In Austria, where one out of every 3 three households had been members of consumer co-operatives, Hitler’s invasion led to the leaders of the co-ops being replaced by fascists while their assets were seized and handed over to private business owners. In Spain, Franco arrested and killed many co-op leaders while many others took exile in Latin America. (Conaty & Lewis, 2012, pp. 220-221)
One may ask why this happened. One answer, when co-operative assets were seized and passed over to private owners, or to the fascists, was that the co-operatives had been too successful for the private economy and the real basis of economic power in society was being revealed – violence was being used to re-stabilise the private sector. There is a deeper answer too. All entrepreneurial activity, all business activity, is based on an ethical and a value system, and that ethical and value system, whether consciously or not, implies a vision for society. As regards Czechoslovakia, the co-ops were a threat to the dictators – fascist and then communist – because they represented a self-organised society where people took decisions for themselves and were well-organized to do so.
A form of economic organisation and entrepreneurship that tries to embody and embed democratic principles implies a deeper form of political democracy too. Not least in the sense that co-operatives imply practical participation in economic decision-making by ordinary people who thereby develop skills for a genuinely participative political democracy. John Stewart Mill realized the implications when he wrote:
We do not learn to read or write, to ride or swim, by being merely told how to do it, but by doing it, so it is only by practicing popular government on a limited scale, that the people will ever learn to exercise it on a larger. (On Liberty)
This is why this movement has always been an anathema for autocrats who reserve for themselves alone the power to decide what they deem in the best interests of society. On the other hand, Mill’s insight helps to explain why generations of heretical economic thinkers and social philosophers have tried to revive the social justice tradition of the guilds, recreating the commons and an economics based on co- operation and community.
Alternative economic models in India
The attempt has been international – and not just confined to Europe or the Anglo Saxon world. Gandhi’s vision for economic development for an independent India was as a co-operative path promoting self-sufficiency and self-rule (Swaraj). In his vision, economic activity involved people “developing themselves”, including in a spiritual, self-transformative dimension. (Schroyer, 2009, pp. 82-85)
After Gandhi’s death in 1947, Vinoba Bhave and JP Narayan organized a Bhoodan (land gift) and then a Gramdam (village gift) movement because, without land, there was no way that the village poor in India could be self-sufficient and participate in economic life. The basic idea of both movements was therefore to urge large landlords to gift part of their land to the rural poor. Although significant acreage was donated, the movement ran up against the problem that the rural poor did not have enough money or access to low cost finance. When recipients of the land gifts borrowed, using the land as collateral, much was repossessed.
The village gift movement learned from the repossessions. The amended idea envisaged gifted land organized through village trusts to overcome the risk of repossession. Overall Bhoodan and Gramdan secured 5 million acres over 20 years. The idea spread internationally. Experiments like these inspired Martin Luther King and then a Community Land Trust movement in the United States and elsewhere. (Schroyer, 2009, p. 85) (Conaty & Lewis, 2012, p. 87)
Co-operatives and social enterprises today
At the present time, at least one billion people on the planet are members of co-operatives, though you would never know that from mainstream economic textbooks. In over 800 pages, Mankiw and Taylor’s economic textbooks never discuss co-operatives at all. They only mention “co-operation” as an economic phenomena that they consider is unlikely to happen but which does so occasionally nevertheless. If you are educated in Harvard where Mankiw teaches, you might never find out, therefore, that co-operatives employ more people than the multinationals and provide services to 3 billion people weekly. That is about 40% of people on the planet.
Co-operative federations and support networks
There are remarkable success stories. In the Basque country in Spain, the Mondragon Corporation has evolved from small beginnings in 1956 to a business group with 80,000 employees, operating transnationally in finance, the manufacture of industrial goods, retail and knowledge – the latter being linked to the Co-operative University of Mondragon. Mondragon is a network that has evolved its own federated support institutions and infrastructure which is crucial to the success of the associated co- operative businesses.
The fact is, that for hundreds of years, and in our own time, huge numbers of people have tried to organise business on ethical, community focused and co-operative principles. However, they have operated in a hostile business environment. As Professor Jaroslav Vanek of Cornell University puts it:
If you go to a bank and ask for a loan to start a co-op, they will throw you out. Co-ops in the West are a bit like sea water fish in a freshwater pond. The capitalist world in the last 200 years has evolved its own institutions, instruments, political frameworks etc. There is no guarantee that another species could function if it had to depend on the same institutions. In capitalism, the power is embedded in the shares of common stock, a voting share. This has no meaning in economic democracy. Economic democracy needs its own institutions for one simple reason. Workers are not rich. Let’s face it, most working people in the world today are either poor or unemployed. They do not have the necessary capital to finance democratic enterprises. Hence, we need some instruments and institutions which make this possible. Why? Because we know that once democratic firms are organized, or even if they have all the elements of democratic principles, they work far better than capitalist enterprises. (Vanek, 1995)
However, while the Mondragon Corporation as a network is a powerful example of what is possible when communities and workers federate, it does have its problems. At the time of writing, Fagor, one of the largest of the Mondragon co-operatives, has had to file for protection against its creditors as it tries to re-organise. The co-operative Bank in the UK has also been in difficulties at the time of writing. It took over the Britannia Building Society that had too many bad debts.
It is therefore necessary to inject a note of caution into the discussion of co-operatives – and into thinking about the whole social economy.
There are no panaceas – co-ops and social enterprises fail too
Co-ops and social economy enterprises fail too. Nothing is eternal, conditions of uncertainty apply to co-ops too and poor decisions are taken by people no matter how ethical or community orientated they are. Nor are the motivating values and ethical systems that apply in co-ops and social economy enterprises always what they seem to be. One may think that the social entrepreneurs are motivated by the ideals of co-operation, the love of their fellow human beings and the environment, indeed they can loudly proclaim that they do. Yet, in practice you sometimes find people who are actually motivated to be seen to be virtuous – and a lot more virtuous than anyone else. These top dogs and leading experts in co-operation may turn out to be condescending micro-managers who always know what is in everyone else’s best interests. Now and then, unfortunately, one meets virtuous people who see themselves as so much better at co-operation than anyone else. Stated values may not align with realities when people
are lacking in self-awareness about their holier than thou stance. Such narcissists may be inclined to petulance and even vindictiveness if and when challenged – as can easily happen because they are such a pain to work with or under.
No organisational form, no ownership regime, is a cure all. It is impossible to design a system that will solve all problems. Karl Marx once wrote that we make our own history but not in conditions of our own choosing. Some of the conditions that may not be of our own choosing include the personalities of our colleagues and co-workers. As therapists will tell you, people’s personalities can be changed slowly – but it takes time. People need to want to change and they are rarely open to therapeutic suggestions from their colleagues.
Freshwater fish in a saltwater environment
Other conditions constraining organisations in the social and ecological economy are those kind of institutional mismatches that Jaroslav Vanek refers to. It does not help that co-operatives, social enterprises and not for profit organisations exist in a market, institutional and cultural environment that is not set up for them. It is clear, for example, that the current difficulties of Fagor of Mondragon are related to the Eurozone financial crisis and the catastrophic economic conditions in Spain. (Written early 2014). These, in turn, were largely the result of real estate speculation pumped up by the Spanish banks, which are hardly the fault of Fagor, though it is now a victim of the fall out.
There is a deeper lesson here. Co-operatives and social economy organisations can be pulled down in the collapse of the general economy. Indeed, the closer they are aligned with and integrated into the economic mainstream, the more likely this is to happen. Workers’ ownership and control will not prevent this happening on its own.
This brings me to the example of the John Lewis Partnership. This is the largest worker owned company and third largest private business in the UK with over 70,000 partners. It is sometimes held up as wonderful example to show how successful a trusteeship model for a business can be. For example, by Lewis and Conaty in their book The Resilience Imperative (Conaty & Lewis, 2012, pp. 280-283) or by Marjorie Kelly in her book Owning our Future (Kelly, 2012, pp. 177-184). As with the Mondragon Corporation, the gains of the John Lewis Partnership are shared between the worker partners.
The Partnership has mechanisms to hold management accountable, to debate and suggest policies in a transparent and accountable system, while power is shared in a federated system of councils which Lewis and Conaty describe as “reminiscent of the guilds”. Like Mondragon, the Partnership has secured its growth through self-financing thereby avoiding the instability and speculation of the capital markets.
Yet for all of these successes, there is a tremendous paradox with the John Lewis Partnership. In an era of consumer capitalism where the economic system is banging up against the Limits to Growth and millions of people are groaning under unsustainable debts, the John Lewis Partnership runs a chain of stores that are veritable temples to consumerism. There is no doubt about it – the partners do sell these consumer goods very successfully, but are these purposes a contribution to sustainability and the future of humanity? According to Marjorie Kelly, the JLP are stepping up their environmental commitments. Under pressure from Greenpeace, the JLP recently backed down from a tie up between its associate company, Waitrose, and Shell. Despite this, the JLP focus on growth means that its carbon emissions are still growing in absolute terms.
In her book, Kelly describes asking someone from the JLP the very pertinent question: “How can a department store chain shift into a low-consumption, no growth economy?” and says of the person that she asked “He doesn’t have an answer. Maybe none of us do.” (Kelly, 2012, p. 184)
Indeed! The purpose of department stores simply does not match a future of energy descent and degrowth, whether they are owned by their staff or not.
Perhaps a better model for the future is provided in Italy, where there has been a 20 year explosive growth of co-operatives providing social services in ways that integrate the participation of disadvantaged groups. In 2013, these Italian co-operatives employed 360,000 paid workers including 40,000 people from disadvantaged groups, with over 31,000 volunteers. They now provide for almost 5 million people and have a turnover of 9 billion euros. These co-operatives also illustrate again the importance that has developed at Mondragon – a level of supportive “enterprise ecology” where there is co-operation among co-operatives – networks and an infrastructure shared between organisations with common values and purposes. (Conaty & Lewis, 2012, pp. 251-257)
The specific client focus of the Italian co-ops is relevant too. In an era of stagnation and even collapse in the so called “developed countries”, when a bulge of elderly people are reaching retirement and will have plenty of needs in their last years, in an era when many others are being thrown into unemployment, poverty and ill health, what the Italian co-operatives are doing will need to be a major direction for the social economy.
The central point is this – companies that focus solely on return on capital alone cannot do a number of jobs, despite all the “invisible hand” clap-trap. The ethos of extrinsic motivations gives rise to types of enterprise culture that are antithetical to authentic care for people and places. Co-ops and social enterprises can be formed to work for intrinsic motivations, rather than for monetary rewards – but that does not mean, of course, that they can neglect attention to covering their costs. They are not necessarily profit focused if they are trying to make a surplus in what they do so as to ensure their long run financial stability.
Further, much more radical models exist which turn away from consumerism. Throughout Germany, one can find centres set up with equipped workshops which people can use to develop skills to make things by DIY. There are also “repair centres” and networks so that people can give away or exchange used products, not to mention community gardens to grow your own food – all a little bit different from John Lewis and its associate organisation, upmarket supermarket Waitrose. (HEi, 2014) (Verbund Offener Werkstaetten (Association of Open Workshops), 2013).