What's the political, societal and community role of the Co-op Movement in England today?
Co-op activist and anarchist Cath Muller, talks to Nick Mahony of Municipal Enquiry, about the contemporary landscape of cooperativism in England and offers some ways ahead.
NM: What are your relationships with the coop movement?
CM: My first relationship to the coop movement came through eco-defence and Green Anarchism – and my commitment to it has grown out of that analysis. My political development originally took place within Earth First! (the decentralised direct-action eco-defence movement) and then subsequently within Cornerstone Housing Co-op and Footprint Workers Co-op, both members of the Radical Routes federation or mutual aid network of co-ops geared to radical social change. Radical Routes, at least for most of its first 25 or 30 years, considered itself at the coop end of the radical social change movement, rather than the radical social change end of the coop movement.
Through representing Radical Routes at various co-op movement events and meetings, I got increasingly involved in the workers co-op scene and then co-operative development. And in the last two years I got elected to the Workers Co-op Council and joined the Board of Co-ops UK.
I see co-ops as being a tool – a means to the end of realising a world based on cooperation and mutual aid, where people's creativity and the environment are valued and not exploited. From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs; basically, non-hierarchical, anarchist, feminist and eco.
Radical Routes has chosen cooperatives as its part of the work towards this goal. This means specific cooperative forms are favoured by Radical Routes, these being the ones that guard against private property and hierarchy, those which have collective governance and common ownership embedded within them.
Many forms of coop don’t have these principles embedded in them – for example, where users don’t have to be members, or which offer shared ownership. My commitment is generally to coop forms that are fully mutual, meaning all the members are users and all the users are members, that are non-hierarchical, rather than those that are managed by committee, or rather than those that have a huge membership, where most of the members don’t participate. The coops I’m interested in are about collective responsibility, common ownership and non-hierarchy.
When Radical Routes started in the mid 1980’s it had a fairly coherent vision. This vision was about communities taking as many elements of the economy as possible into the ownership and control of coops, mainly workers coops. Nearly all the founding coops were workers coops. However, Thatcher had just introduced the housing benefit system and there was interest in how unemployed people might take control of their housing and bring it more into common ownership and cooperative control, even though they didn’t have any money. This was the context in which Radical Routes, over the next 25 years, became an incredibly useful network for support and lots of useful advice for people wanting to set up that kind of housing coop legal structure.
Nearly everyone in Radical Routes in the last 20 years has experience of living in a housing coop, or experience of setting one up, so it’s a brilliant mutual aid network if that’s what you want to do. Over time the membership and make-up of Radical Routes changed to reflect that focus. When Radical Routes began, the network was mostly comprised of worker coops, but the ratio of workers coops to housing coops has flipped and I think there’s now only three worker coop members in Radical Routes and they’re all very small, everyone else is part of a housing coop.
So over multiple generations of members, Radical Routes has gone from being something with a coherent and quite radical agenda of communities taking control of all aspects of their lives and livelihoods, to being something of a housing coop service organisation. That’s my glass-half-empty opinion, my analysis, and of course Radical Routes is more radical than how I’m describing it here - I recognise there are lots of different ways of understanding Radical Routes and what structured mutual aid is or is for.
This change is sort of inevitable because it’s a federation – individuals don’t join Radical Routes, they join member housing co-ops and find themselves in it, often without particularly signing up to it. So, the lack of coherence is partly because there is such variability now in terms of how much different individuals engage, which means knowledge is wildly varying, and partly because there are diverging understandings of the aims and politics of the organisation.
For the last 15 years or so, as it is run on a mutual aid basis, there have been tensions around how much members need to contribute. If members don’t contribute, it won’t function very well, it’s fairly straightforward.
Another grumbling tension that exists amongst members of Radical Routes is between those who desire the organisation to be accessible and inclusive, so that co-op housing is accessible to more people, and those who are looking for Radical Routes to be a mutual aid network for political activists who are collectively trying to achieve particular goals.
Currently, there are about 35 member coops which are part of Radical Routes and though overall it’s still very small scale, the organisation is still doing a great job at getting money in, making loans to members and enabling people to create coops.
NM: Can you point to examples of how coops form relationships to other networks or associations in the communities they are situated - whether these are community groups, trade unions or political parties for example?
CM: Ha, I long to combine co-operative tools and structures with community development and I’m in awe of those who manage it, which I never did. Alongside my involvement with Radical Routes, about 10 or 11 years ago I was approached by a university friend and neighbour, Alex Sobel (who is now an MP, but was then managing Co-ops Yorkshire & the Humber and living locally) to help set up both Chapeltown Development Trust and Leeds Community Organising. I put a lot of work into getting the Development Trust legally structured as a co-op, which would develop community businesses and bring community assets into common ownership – that didn’t really work out, due to my lack of experience with community work. As part of setting up Leeds Community Organising I did a fair bit of training with the US-based Gamaliel Foundation (the organisation that Barack Obama came through when he did his Community Organising) and then subsequently more training with Citizens UK. I really wanted to push the ideas and goals of workplace democracy, worker-owned and controlled business entities, community ownership and challenging hierarchy, but that was too much of a personal agenda and it wasn’t taken up by what was essentially becoming a reformist organisation. I ended up refocusing my energies on Radical Routes and eventually got involved with the Worker Coops Council of Coops UK.
I think that the most usual thing in terms of how coops work in their communities happens when they have a bit of spare cash to donate – to illustrate, in my co-op, Footprint, we each put 50p/hour towards a solidarity fund. We’re also able to offer cheap or free printing and I know that Calverts and other printers do the same. In terms of ongoing connections, though, the best current example of an organisation connecting with its community that I can think of in England is Birmingham Bike Foundry.
Birmingham Bike Foundry are a bike shop and an IWW Union shop on the main road in Stirchley. They have a spare room, which they use for IWW Union meetings and the local Kurdish community group uses it too. They got very involved in opposing local business district zoning proposals and successfully organised local businesses to create an autonomous organisation. Now they’re a main driving force behind Stirchley Coop Development – working with two other local workers co-ops and a housing co-op to develop 40-odd co-op housing units on top of shopfronts for workers co-ops, on that same main road. They’re an incredible example really and that’s because you’ve got a small group of politically coherent people who are developing activities to address their shared social agenda with others in a local context.
NM: Birmingham Bike Foundry is more than a cooperative then?
CM: Yes, they’re using the cooperative structure as a base from which to reach out and do other things. It’s a vehicle, it can be used and for me at least that’s the ideal for what politically-grounded coops should be. Coops should be helpful economic structures, that serve multiple functions, including: giving people a livelihood, meeting a need in some way, providing a kind of marketing shopfront for promoting political ideology and also being this particular kind of legal entity that can channel resources beyond the coop.
So in the case of my own housing coop, Cornerstone Housing Coop, it does that too, in that we have a monthly ‘how much are we giving away and who are we giving it to’ item on the agenda, which is often quite random and unstructured. We’ve given money for everything from Palestinian prisoner support to the local primary school’s garden project, medical costs for US anti-fascists and for UK trans migrants, local residents campaigning to save their homes and eco-defence on the route of HS2.
The other thing we do is work with other housing coops to pool our surplus which can then be used to pay off the mortgages of a third housing coop, then we all just keep paying money into this central structure and whenever there’s a big enough pool of money we then invite another coop to start paying money in and we pay off its loans. This process is designed to stop money going to banks and works on the understanding that once you’ve got six or seven coops paying in the surplus will build up quickly and will be enough that we can basically buy up properties for new coops to direct lease, to make it easier for people to start housing coops.
The possible limitation of this second approach, and this is a bit of an issue with Radical Routes, is that it can feel very internal to the movement and very much like directing resources to other political activists. In a way, this kind of makes sense because we don’t have very much in the way of resources at all. And it makes sense to me at what still feels to me like it’s very much the beginning of a longer process, where we are still starting to try and focus our resources on developing more activists and secure bases for activism. Then, at some point when that’s all running OK, we can spread our resources around a bit more, once we’re also generating more resources.
NM: What role do you think coops can have in defending, supporting or developing spaces for collective, democratic, or community based discussion and decision making activities?
CM: They have been very limited in the UK. But there was a really great example of this that happened in Greece, several years ago. In Greece the Vio.me Factory, which was a producer of industrial adhesives in Thessaloniki, went bust. Local activists quickly invited over a group of Argentinian worker coop factory-occupiers and managed to convince former-employees to occupy their factory and re-commence production autonomously.
Some of the employees left but around a third occupied the factory. Once the occupation was underway these people quickly realised that they needed to include the community in this process, as they realised that their success would ultimately rely on the support of the broader community. So, they started, very early on, having community assemblies about what direction the factory should go in.
One of the outcomes of these assemblies was, for example, the decision that rather than go on making industrial adhesives the factory should instead make organic detergents, which would be better for the health of the local environment, the workers and everyone else. They also made space for a drop-in clinic and created a storage area where bedding and other resources could be stored for migrants, as there is a vast migrant population in the local area.
They began to produce a hand-friendly detergent, as they discovered that because all the migrants were doing their washing by hand this was leading to a lot of skin conditions. This work all took place in conjunction with the local community, allowing the resource of the factory to become useful to local people. They also relied on the physical and moral support of the community to, for example, blockade the property auctions where the factory was going to be sold off, which happened at least twice.
Worker coops can do amazing things if they have the will to and very often the people who set coops up have got an agenda. However, what can happen really quickly is that these people then have to also immediately start thinking about whether they are financially stable and about recruiting new people Once they’ve done these things the Overton Window of the coop has often changed, or the collective will to achieve a political end has moved on. In other words, as a strongly motivated and tight-knit group becomes more stretched and other people with different priorities or motivations join the co-op, the politics very often become less focussed or less important – the co-op might be less willing to take financial risks or to increase their time commitment to achieve political goals.
I think it’s important to note that when the co-op movement was in its growing years, from the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries, many local consumer co-op societies had an emancipatory and revolutionary agenda – they were helping start up other co-ops, they had reading rooms, all kinds of social and cultural groups, they were building their own supply chains, running farms. Alongside the unions they were challenging the capitalist class. It’s so important to analyse why this changed and be clear about the forces that co-opted all that energy.
NM: What role does Coops UK play when it comes to taking forward any of these big issues around developing coops in the UK?
CM: I think many of the Coops UK management team and members see Coops UK as a trade body. They all agree that coops are better for society in all sorts of ways and that more people should be in coops because coops are great and having a bigger percentage of the economy in cooperative ownership and run cooperatively would be better for society in general; and they repeat the fact that in parts of Italy, where approximately 30% of the economy is cooperative it means standards are different as everyone else (who’s not in a coop) has to behave better. So there’s a fair amount of ‘coops are nice’ general messaging.
But their role is essentially to make trading conditions better for their members. That said, since the subscription income from their members has been fairly dramatically dropping in the last decade or so, they’ve bolstered their income with paid-for advice services (HR, legal, etc) and grant-funded project work – and this obviously has a co-operative development angle to it.
So assuming Coop UK’s role is a trade body, it has to work across all of the political parties and has to deal with the Conservative Government in order to create or maintain a favourable trading environment for its members and this is mostly what its members want it to do. It can do a lot of work promoting co-operative solutions that don’t challenge mainstream politics – community co-ops owning pubs and clubs, housing co-ops, student co-ops, how to be a good co-op secretary, how to deal with member engagement and HR. But it doesn’t do much to challenge its members. And its biggest members aren’t much interested in politically challenging ideas, or in being challenged themselves on how co-operative they’re being.
For me the big idea is co-ops using their own assets to promote the whole movement, to educate people about co-ops, to incubate new co-ops. You don’t get, for example, Coop Supermarkets promoting other local coops, although they have acres of shop windows, public interface and advertising budgets – they could make a huge difference to other co-ops in their area or to educating people about the co-op principles.
The biggest cooperative in the UK is the Cooperative Group, which is a conglomeration over the last 70-odd years, of lots and lots of independent consumer societies. The Cooperative Group now operates the supermarkets, the funeral services and not that much else. 15 or so years ago they unveiled themselves in their marketing as ‘The Cooperative’ and a lot of the other retail societies were happy to go along with this and agree to use that branding as well. But it really made life very difficult for worker cooperatives in communications terms. It felt like erasure.
In terms of principle 6, which is principle of cooperation between cooperatives; and principle 5, which is education and training; the way the new Cooperative Group presented itself and was organised frankly left a lot to be desired - it hid the fact that there was a wider cooperative movement that existed beyond the consumer movement, that there were worker coops that people could join or start . It also drove even more of a wedge between these different parts of the coop movement.
Recently Steve Murrells, the Chief Executive of the Coop Group, has done mainstream news interviews where he has used ‘Coops’ with an ‘s’ on the end, which I found absolutely mind-blowing. That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone in The Co-op Group management publicly acknowledge other coops.
Then when you think about community coops and energy coops, community run pub coops and probably the most political sector at the moment is platform coops, all of these think of themselves as cooperative solutions within community energy, or saving community pubs - again these don’t usually see themselves as part of a wider movement or as responsible for trying to build synergies or collaborations locally.
Credit unions and food coops are the most community-development-oriented kind of coops I can think of. Community energy and community pubs are not far behind, but they tend to be in richer areas. They are more community focused because they are about basic needs, for food and money in this case. People say, ‘OK we haven’t got enough food, how are we going to get more food, or money?’ They are the ones that are experiencing a market failure.
So while Coops UK can do research and promote and support community shares and lobby the government around legislation, what it doesn’t seem able to do is push a narrative about co-ops themselves being the most efficient advocates for the co-op movement or about coops using their resources for community empowerment or self-organising.
And the fact that Coops UK are largely funded by a giant supermarket clearly influences the questions they ask. Because of these links they’re not able to really question capitalism and consumption and a whole bunch of other things. And they must be pretty careful questioning hierarchy.
NM: So you see connections here between community development oriented cooperative approaches and the kinds of mutual aid based approaches you mentioned earlier?
CM: Yes, and this is absolutely exemplified by Cooperation Kentish Town, who set up a food co-op in an effort to integrate community organising and food coop plans. As well as great door-to-door organising, they had good social media presence. Within a couple of weeks, in response to enquiries from all over London and the UK, they also created ’Cooperation Town’, a national mutual aid network/peer-learning network for similar groups around the country to support each other; they’re very new, they just started in January/February 2020.
The whole issue of how to most effectively get local people and communities involved in starting and governing local coops is a really difficult nut to crack and it’s partly why I started to move away from coops for a bit and towards community organising all that time ago.
I thought it’s got to be more of a priority to get local people communicating about these issues and realising communities’ agency. I never cracked how to do this really well. I realised it’s basically not my skill set, but there are other people who are brilliant at it. There are people in Lambeth and Southwark Community Organising, for example blogging and tweeting as Southwark Notes, who have been very effective. Southwark Notes are good because they talk about class, recognise that lots of people have no money and see that people need more agency. They put together economics, empowerment, agency and training in a way that’s brilliant.
NM: Are there links between the coop sector and charity sector?
CM: I don’t think so, not particularly. The big retail coops support charities local to their shops, which doesn’t look much different from Corporate Social Responsibility. Many of the links that Co-ops UK has are a legacy of the Big Society agenda, which is a phenomenon from the late 2000’s onwards, when the new community coop sector was trying to grow in an environment increasingly geared towards social enterprises – many of which have fewer democratic obligations and are more politically and structurally prepared to get funding.
The projects that Coops UK are doing with external charitable funding are all good projects, and they tend not to be funder-led, which is great.
NM: How much of Coop UK’s funding comes from Coop supermarkets?
CM: About one third of Cooperatives UK’s total income comes from the 3 biggest consumer coops. Coops UK have lots and lots of members and their members range from 2 member workers coops to the seven-million-member Cooperative Group and everything in-between. The vast, vast majority of their subscription income comes from the consumer retail societies - the Cooperative Group, which has stores across the UK, is by far the biggest though there are 4-5 others which are still pretty big, still numbering between 100,000 and nearly a million members each.
Then there are some third-tier coop societies which still have some resource; and then you’re getting down to worker coops like Sunderland Home Care Associates with 400+ workers or Suma, the wholefood supplier and coop, who have perhaps 150-180 worker members. Suma is the biggest equal pay worker coop in Europe.
NM: So, are you saying that Coops UK’s focus on its retail and consumer activity tends to limit space for members and others to question or discuss market economics and pertaining forms of hierarchical organisation and politics?
CM: There are two reasons why that’s a yes and a ‘sort of’. Firstly, it’s a ‘sort of’ because Co-ops UK doesn’t really have a forum for its members to question anything – a few questions put by conference participants, articles in Co-op News or policy papers or twitter that the staff may decide to pick up on as funded projects, or really persistent and energetic board members could manage to push a policy with a great deal of planning and politicking.
Secondly, it’s a yes because none of that political framework was ever questioned in the consumer coop movement anyway, at least not since the late 19th Century I don’t think. By the 1920’s and 30’s the consumer coop movement was challenging shareholder capitalism and was effectively looking to realise a cooperative version of capitalism that benefitted working class consumers, but it didn’t challenge hierarchy or capital itself and it’s unlikely ever to question consumerism! There is a history of distrust and dislike based on political differences between the producer and consumer movements, particularly around workers getting a share of the surplus – in fact they split in the 1880s.
The worker coop movement was rejuvenated in the late 60s, a solution for anarchists and the left wanting to make decent or even revolutionary livelihoods outside of hierarchy and private property.
The movement grew through the 70’s and 80’s – indeed in the late 70s, the Labour government allocated £100,000 to set up ICOM – the Industrial Common Ownership Movement), as well as funding regional co-operative development agencies. Then, through the 90’s ICOM had built up a reasonably large set of employees, it was providing a lot of services and training, but the sector itself was shrinking (at least partially affected by the rise of social enterprise as a preferred choice for setting up an ethical business). So ICOM’s income was dropping and it was therefore just trying to maintain this organisation to support and service what was a shrinking sector. I see parallels with Coops UK’s own history and possible trajectory since the reduction in subscription income, which they’re successfully staving off with funded project work.
ICOM was on its way to bankruptcy by the year 2000, potentially taking workers co-op activism with it, but instead it merged with the Coop Union (the long-established consumer co-op body) to form Coops UK . So Coops UK was always a smashing together of really quite different cooperative tendencies, with the consumer movement vastly outnumbering all other sectors. The worker coops managed to keep a couple of seats on the board and a bit of secretarial support to keep them going but from 2000 to 2014 there was pretty much no worker coop activity whatsoever apart from an elected council that suggested a few things to the board. There was basically nothing and so the worker coop movement was not a movement during that time.
And then we started the worker coop weekends and the workers coop solidarity fund and from this we just tried to very slowly develop a sense of politics and a movement again. But again, this will likely always conflict with the needs of Coops UK’s biggest members, so it’s hard to see where this process will go next.
So within the Workers Co-op Council, there’s definitely a sense of ‘no, we do want to have a political agenda’ and ‘we do want worker coops to service a wider economic and social change’, but it’s really trying to steer a big ship. And by that I mean, not just Coops UK, but all the worker coops that make up the sector. The older coops are full of people who just got a job in a coop, without necessarily being inspired by the values or being there to pursue some greater agenda – the same dynamic which afflicts Radical Routes as a federation.
If you’re going to talk about the worker coop movement as a movement, and I’m not sure it is a movement, there’s not yet a set of aligned coop workers heading together in the same direction. So we do want the resources of Coops UK to help build the workers coop movement.
NM: What about the rise of Preston and the so-called ‘Preston model’, where does that fit in here for you? Do you see it as a focus of new hope for the coop movement at the moment?
CM: That’s a qualified yes: yes, because it’s created a profile for a strategy and legitimised it – almost regardless of how Preston itself does, it’s created a buzz and an example. So, yes, because it’s got a whole lot of councils, co-operators and think-tanks working on how to replicate something that hasn’t even properly happened yet.
They’ve already discovered that getting people to set up workers co-ops is very much easier said than done – it’s been much harder to gain traction amongst the population than they’d imagined. As with the Cleveland model, there’s a lot of exciting talk and obviously Matthew Brown is in a better position than a lot of the people in the Democracy Collaborative were - as the leader of the Council you’re in a position to affect a whole town through policy setting. Whereas it seemed that in Cleveland academics with no business experience just went in saying ‘hey - do you want to join a coop? Coops are good for these reasons..’ - they hadn’t done the community development work on the ground, the training, etc.
But you can’t set up a worker coop for someone else, you just can’t do it. You have to make it something that people have heard of, make it a thing that people can think ‘oh I can do that’ or something that people say ‘I’m thinking of setting up a business, maybe I could do it with other people’. Otherwise why would anyone choose to do something they’ve never heard of before? Or which sounds difficult? If you’re the sort of person who wants to set up a business, it might be easier with a friend or two, but actually if you’re going to start thinking to pour lots of energy in and then they might get rid of us founders if it becomes a coop, lots of people will think ‘I don’t want that!’. Many people will still think, ‘if I’m going to pour energy into setting up a business, it’s going to be my business’.
But I do see hope in the fact that Preston have recognised that now that Stir to Action are doing training up there and Co-ops UK are also putting resource in. There’s a recognition that community training and consciousness-raising is required to make the co-operative soil fertile enough to grow anything.
NM: What are your thoughts about the future of coops in the next few years?
CM: I have come to the conclusion that a very small number of people are really good at keeping things going and inspiring people to get involved and take responsibility together and have the drive and capacity to keep on and on, putting energy into maintaining a collective culture in projects without financial compensation. Sometimes people understandably think ‘do you know what, I can’t do all this community or political activity and also keep up a paid job, but what if I could do some of this and be paid to do it for a certain amount of time each week’, but that’s the next level up really and that’s where funding comes in really useful - to provide a kind of infrastructure to support community activity.
But, one issue with this is, almost immediately you get funding and you’ve got people paid to do it you can sometimes start to develop an ‘us and them’ mentality, where you have one set of people who are doing all the work and another set of people who volunteer and do parts of the work but don’t really own it. This is a dichotomy that I don’t really know how to overcome.
So what happens if you try to make co-ops a solution to this problem, a way of keeping the collective culture in place? Tellingly, lots of worker coops say you can’t be a member unless you’re working here full-time, because you won’t know enough to participate in decision making – that’s how they guard against the two-tier problem. And then you’re trying to walk the tightrope - often it’s very difficult for people in a worker coop to think outside of the coop, because it takes so much just to keep the thing going, and there are so many elements to keep tabs on.
This is exactly why we set up Footprint Workers Co-op – we wanted to continue being activists, we wanted to create a resource for radical social change, we wanted to be off the dole and not committed to a capitalist business or boss. We were looking around for a business that met these criteria and a cheap printing press crossed our paths. Cornerstone Housing Co-op could support us with free premises, which meant less time working to cover rent. We joined Radical Routes to promote this strategy of seizing the means of production and to have a framework for political accountability. But our example wasn’t followed by very many people in the end.
Basically, there are just not enough people in the UK who’ve been prepared for both co-operative working and community, or political, struggle. We don’t have much of a culture of businesses taking political positions (except over Brexit, apparently), so it’s not recognised by activists as a route to take. Social Enterprise has done a much better job of selling itself as the solution. We also don’t have enough political co-op and institution experience for people to be aware of the pitfalls I just mentioned and set up coops that are prepared for handling them.
These issues are problems even in Radical Routes where it’s really hard to overcome inner-circles of people who are able to spend more time doing Radical Routes work and then other people will never have enough time to just catch up and participate in debates or information processing in order to make decisions. And while activists are keen to set up housing co-ops, there’s been barely any interest in workers coops or a strategic economic agenda in the last 10-15 years. It can be hard to remember, in the midst of following all the procedures and policies and trying to keep everyone informed and engaged, that keeping Radical Routes going isn’t the end goal. But trying to change it is hard, because we’re already stuck in the two tiers, due to our federal structure - we’re like ‘come on coops, please have these conversations internally, skill-share internally, then bring back your opinions and decisions - I know we only meet four times each year and different people come each time but I’m sure we can continue this complex conversation’ then ‘oh that person has left, so we’ll need to start again with someone else at the beginning’. This is all something I think about a lot, the efficacy and bureaucracy of federals, I have no idea how to make it work in a non-hierarchical way.
So, yes, there’s basically no substitute for getting on the streets talking to people and setting up and running training courses. So if I had nothing else to do and a couple of other people who wanted to do it with me, I would basically go door to door chatting, three nights a week and two afternoons a week, run courses on how to set up a coop, or how to set up a food coop, or childcare circles. We’d bring people together and say ‘who’s in the room?’, ‘what do we already know?’, ‘hey I already know someone doing something like this in New York, let’s get on Zoom and be inspired by them’, that kind of thing which is about meeting someone who’s already done it, which nowadays is much easier.
It was amazing when Cooperation Jackson were touring around the UK and we had the chance to put an event on with them in Chapeltown and I was like, ‘this is the beginning’ ‘we’ll get Cooperation Jackson to talk and we’ll try to rekindle things here - as there were coops here in Chapeltown in the 1980s’. Someone actually said in the big public meeting we had ‘do you know what, we did our bit but we’re old now and we need some younger people to come forwards’
Here in Leeds there were historically quite a few coops led by members of the African-Caribbean community and there are lots of younger activists from the same community who are doing lots of community or political activism, but there does seem to be some kind of political disconnect between them and the coop movement.
NM: So are you advocating for more connections to be made between mutual aid networks and the cooperative movement?
CM: That’s what Cooperation Kentish Town is, it’s kind of a Covid mutual aid group. And there are a few other mutual aid initiatives that have recently set up that are saying ‘let’s keep the principles of mutual aid but now try and entrench them in a structure’... the thing about coops which I think is tremendously important but that is also a double-edged sword is that you have skin in the game, you need the coop - principle 3 is member economic participation, which means you can only be a member if you are somehow economically tied to us, whether that is working for us or paying us for a service.
That’s what makes a coop a coop as opposed to a campaigning organisation or a charity or a community group, which is not to say that all those things are not also useful tools. But obviously it’s a double-edged sword as once you’ve got a coop made up of members who need the coop to meet their personal needs, you also then get an organisation made up of people who’ve created something only to meet their needs.
This means that coops and the members of coops don’t then necessarily need to look wider, their needs could literally be anything. There’s nothing to say their needs will necessarily be anything remotely revolutionary or that the coop needs to be for anything wider than ‘let’s just have a shop in the local community’. That’s the really hard part and that’s why when the Rochdale Pioneers came up with their principles the thing that was super important about them was cooperation between the cooperatives, to build a movement, and education and training, again, to build a movement. Those things were vital because that’s what makes it a movement, rather than just lots of people helping themselves in a mutual aid way. That’s the bit that looks outwards and it’s the bit that I think the movement fails at the most.
Similarly, with the mutual aid groups, a lot will have been formed by people saying ‘oh I can help and we can help each other and that’d be good’, but without a collective political analysis of what that means in a society built on capitalism and just in time consumerism, a lot of those groups are absolutely inevitably going to be extremely short lived because they are responding to an emergency. You can only respond to an emergency for so long before you’re like ‘I’m out of resources now’ and ‘I hadn’t immediately thought I/we’d have to also try to develop some kind of long-term solution to this emergency, that’s not why we set this up, we thought it would be a short-term thing, I can pull out all the stops for a while but not forever.’
With more political analysis the response could be different, it could be ‘ah this is a political opportunity, let’s get some stuff in place’, the groups that have done this are more likely to be the ones that carry on.
NM: What’s your view on what needs to happen to move these issues on further and break some of the log-jams you’ve been highlighting?
CM: In my view there needs to be a lot of solidarity economy training, that needs to be really well resourced and by that I mean resourced in a way that allows the people who are going on the training to get paid. Then we could develop enough people in the country who can support other people to cooperate in these kinds of ways, whether that’s through building new projects, developing personally, or whatever. Because when people are working 2 or 3 jobs to survive and looking after kids, how else can they find the time?
At the moment, for example, Mark Simmonds and Nathan Brown of Coop Culture are running something called ‘Barefoot Cooperators Training’. They got funding for two cohorts and I think the first cohort is nearly finished. That programme is about finding people who have been active in coops, usually, sometimes in coop development more specifically, to get structured training to help them become better coop development peer advisors and to build those networks as well.
In my experience at least 50% of being a good adviser is being able to say, ‘do you know I know someone who could help you with this, or who knows that, let me put you in touch’. There’s nothing to make you believe you can do something than to see someone like you has just done it – and the people who are doing it are often the most ardent promoters and supporters and want others to copy them. But actually, I don’t just mean networks for support, but also networks for accountability. The thing we don’t have in the cooperative movement at all is anyone saying to anyone else ‘that’s not OK what you’re doing’, ‘come on, step up’, ‘you are calling yourself a coop but you’re not doing x,y.z, whatever’ or ‘you are doing terrible things e.g. pouring bleach on food in skips, or not unionising...I mean there aren’t really coops not unionising now, but this wasn’t ridiculous 10 years ago.’
The question is, how much of this can we ask from Coops UK? Can economic revolutionaries get support and resource for this agenda from them, given their membership is so skewed to mainstream consumerism? We already have a dynamic in the coop movement, where the worker coop people are like ‘you guys with your hierarchy and wage differentials are so weird and I don’t get it, why are we even in the same movement?’. It’s quite a good dynamic I think, because it’s challenging and you don’t get change without challenge and tension, but actually I don’t really know how much discussion about this takes place beyond the group of people on the board who sometime talk to each other about it.
NM: Training for the solidarity economy is very much key for you then?
CM: Yes, because it can then filter down. If you can do training and train the trainers, then people can do it in their own coops. I also think we need a lot more storytelling, short films, cartoons, memes, jokes, whatever to help reinforce the idea that worker coops are part of a movement and have agency.
Because worker coops actually do have agency, unlike branch managers at coop stores, who do have a bit of agency, but not in the same way and most of their employees don’t have very much. But in worker coops we all do really have agency, we might not always realise that we are part of this movement, but actually bombarding worker coops with a cultural narrative about their agency and their responsibility to resource change in the world I think could be very useful. It’s important because they are already used to having a say in the direction that their organisation takes.
A brilliant example of a worker coop is Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, they are absolutely the gold standard. They are huge by UK worker coop standards, they have more than 70 members I think. They still have fortnightly general meetings, they still have equal pay, they still consider themselves non-hierarchical, they also have all sorts of regular skill-sharing and money giveaway structures that means that they are constantly educating themselves and about who to give money to in terms of who has the most urgent needs.
They are absolutely committed to expanding cooperation. And they work in collaboration with other coops and related groups in Manchester, like the Carbon Coop, Manchester Veg People, the Kindling Trust, they all work well together. They are just brilliant. They also try to implement Sociocracy which is another thing which I wish was better known and there was tons of free training about for.
It’s also worth reading the union coop manifesto, which was launched recently and was written jointly by Alex Bird, Pat Conaty, people from the New Lucus Plan, a couple of the unions and Cilla Ross at the Coop College.
NM: Do study circles have a role, as they’ve also been integral to the union and coop movements, from its foundations in Rochdale and beyond?
CM: Exactly. Though study circles have been out of fashion for probably 50 years.
MN: You see the signs of them reappearing again?
CM: Definitely, in the States especially, study circles are all over the place. Nathan Shnieder is running one in Boulder, they’re central to Boston Ujima’s strategy and Co-operation Jackson’s strategy, groups like Kola Nut Collaborative in Chicago, etc.
NM: But not here in the UK so much?
CM: I guess we just have more structured stuff: there’s Stir to Action’s New Economy Programme, there’s the Barefoot Cooperators and other more formalised initiatives. There’s the cooperative commission in Manchester and Sheffield Council is doing things as well. The projects here are just a lot more structured, they’re not informal. If there are informal study circles I don’t know about them, so this doesn’t mean they’re not happening. But I think we don’t have so much of a culture of self-organised stuff in the UK as we used to.
Actually, I think in the US co-ops have a higher profile, a better known political narrative in social justice movements, so activists are looking into them. That’s not yet the case here, but perhaps Stir to Action and Co-operation Town might crack that nut.
NM: Given what we started off talking about, regarding the importance of informal spaces for collective engagement, public discussion and decision making, community action planning and suchlike, do you think it may be useful to come back to the study circle as a potential way of organising some of these kinds of activities in the coop movement?
CM: Study circles, consciousness raising, popular education - all these activities are absolutely inherent to the coop movement. But the reason it’s taken off again in the States, possibly, is partly because of a book called Collective Courage by Jessica Gordon Nembhard - it’s all about the history of cooperation throughout African-American history and study circles played a huge role in these developments throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries. It seems like every successful initiative has started with study circles. This is partly because people need to be committed and I think we still, misguidedly, do a lot of trying to attract people in by saying ‘it’s not a lot of work, it’ll be in your interests financially…’ then unsurprisingly, people aren’t then always very committed to putting in something more for the common good because that’s not what or why they joined in the first place. So the study circle is the bit that builds relationships and trust, which you need a lot of when you’re all struggling together.
NM: The study circle can also be the vehicle to build that capacity to do things yourself and for self-determination as part of a non-hierarchical group that’s looking to collectively address its own specific needs. This is different to taking a model of a shelf and trying to implement that regardless of the context or specific people involved.
CM: Yes, forming, building and sustaining a coop is work and we’re living in a society where people are sometimes a little bit unwilling to do work to change things, sometimes I get that feeling anyway.
NM: Sometimes alternative ways of organising are, as you say, now often marketed to people in similar ways to how commodities are sold to consumers, it’s no wonder some people may be sometimes in a consumer mindset when they respond to these kinds of offers, do you think that’s a problem?
CM: Yes, and this is sort of a feature of these things. Again, it’s my analysis of Radical Routes is that it can sometimes feel more like a kind of service organisation than like a mutual aid network and this is a battle that we’re constantly, constantly fighting.
You know, can people living in housing coops please stop saying, ‘can Radical Routes do this, or that’ and instead talk about ‘we’, because you’re in this, you’re part of it. The idea that when you join you will have to put in stuff to get stuff back.
Again, I think we’re sometimes guilty of talking too much about how good coops are and how much they will deliver. You know what, they are just different, they are fairer, but they have a different range of advantages and disadvantages than there is with capitalist consumerism. In one, if you’re lucky (i.e. in a good situation in society), you don’t have to do a lot of stuff to get stuff; in the other you have to do a lot of stuff and you get a lot of stuff. With the coops less luck is involved, but more work - you have more agency.