In Praise of Co-operation
The notion that free market capitalism is dead in the water may be fanciful but for the first time in a generation its ability to provide ever increasing levels of prosperity for the populations of Western economies is in some doubt. Although the obituary of capitalism has been prematurely penned many times the temptation amongst its defenders to see the present crisis of confidence caused by a failure of the financial system and exacerbated by a sovereign debt malaise as merely an aberration misses the long-term trend pre-dating the 2008 crash. Indeed the conditions that led to the current situation, that is to say the ease of securing credit by consumers and states, has temporarily emolliated the harshness that the failures within the system may normally have visited upon some sectors of society.
Within the UK some would be forgiven for not seeing the benefits that a freeing up of financial and labour markets has provided since the Thatcher administration. After a decade of declining poverty in the 1970’s a 2007 Joseph Rowntree report shows the percentage of ‘Breadline Poor’ (defined as people with resource levels so low that they are excluded from participating in the norms of society) rising from 17.1% in 1980 to 27% in 2000.
A similar picture is also seen internationally where liberal market structures prevail. The US Census Bureau figures show that there has been a 20% rise in income inequality over the last 40 years and 49.1 million US citizens are currently living in poverty. These are figures projected to rise in the coming decade as a polarization in earning potential leads to a two track economy within states that creates a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nothing’ with not much in between. Indeed those that can be defined as the squeezed middle, a segment of society has been defended and championed by those on the left and right of politics, are more likely to be found on an endangered species list than as a target group of political parties as progress is made in to this century.
This current phenomenon dubbed by some as the ‘Hour Glass’ economy, where at the top are high earning technocrats and at the bottom a servile underclass, could be passed off as the output of over imaginative leftward leaning think-tanks if it were not for the fact that the dispassionate marketing departments of large corporations are beginning to cater for this schism within society. It is recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that Procter and Gamble, a manufacturer of mass market consumer products, finds it necessary to split its product offering to a high and low end consumer. This may be the norm in some industries but to find that washing powder needs promoting in such a way surely signals that changes are occurring within the population of Western economies.
Current street level protest against the excesses and perhaps the existence of the capitalist system itself are no doubt motivated by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the masses and not since the Great Depression as there been such a large constituency ready to listen to alternatives to the free market. The problem is that the left is strangely silent on such alternatives apart from protestation that things should be better. Even the sedentary means of global protest used by contemporary revolutionaries serves as a metaphor for this torpor. The message it would seem is clear. The road to a better world will, by necessity, be lined with idealistic youth sitting in tents.
This may indicate why capitalism with its well documented faults and many detractors has survived long past the sell by date that Marx predicted for it and why following the failure and demise of communism there was no Plan B if communism could have been described as a viable plan at all. The challenge for the left is what cogent vision it can offer for a mode of production that curbs the damage caused by the present paradigm. For be warned those who yearn for the downfall of capitalism. On the first morning of the brave new world people will still have the same wants and aspirations as they did before that glorious day. Idealism therefore needs to be grounded in pragmatism and any new model for society should come with the assurance it will not spill the blood of even the most loathsome member of the banking industry and avoid the inhuman conformity of state sponsored socialism to be inflicted upon the rest of us.
The answers though are unlikely to come from the top down. As Mr. E. Milliband declared in an interview at the last Labour party conference he is a supporter of capitalism and who can blame him for taking such a stance. To say anything less would have been political suicide for himself and the party. So deep and all encompassing is the ideological hegemony around capitalism that one moment of hesitation in delivering unswerving support for global corporatism may have ended in a visit from IMF sponsored boot boys.
There is though a means of dissent against the current system that fulfills the desire to create better ways of providing for the 99% of the world that current protesters assert they represent. It does not involve a bloody revolution or require the acquiescence of the political class for progress to be made and although it may never be a social structure that will be labeled the ‘end of history’ it could be one of the steps to a fairer and just national and global society. The new, secret weapon in the war against poverty and exclusion is the Co-operative Movement. Not that it is either new or secret but with 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives surely its time as come as a challenge to the profit maximizing at what ever the cost mind-set of global capitalism.
For this is a revolution that we can all take part in regardless of our timidity. To strike a blow against fat cat bankers only requires that a proportion of an individual’s wealth be placed with one of the 578 credit unions in the UK that give those denied by the major banks access to a current account and credit. To date it is reported by the Association of British Credit Unions that they have deposits of £600 million but this is dwarfed by the $800 billion in US accounts and indicates how far the UK still has to go. With the impossibly large numbers quoted in the economic news it’s easy to believe that as individuals we are powerless but this is a pretense that those pulling the strings wish to maintain. Indeed it is interesting to ponder on how fearful the financial system would become of a customer that was not going to take what it was given anymore and even more tantalizing a prospect to see a slow deflation in the hubris of those who are too big to fail.
Another sanction that we all have in the market economy, even those with the most modest income is that our informed decisions made regarding purchases confers power. Although it may require effort to become an informed consumer the support of goods and services provided by co-operatives demonstrates that errant corporate behaviour does not have to be tolerated. Certainly there are no shortages of goods and services that can be provided. The UK trade body for co-operatives, Co-operative UK, states that this means of production is worth £33.7 billion to the UK economy and $1.1 trillion to the world economy. Co-operatives are then a proven method of improving the lives of people across the globe, be they employees or customers and as the participating businesses work to the internationally agreed principles of the movement it can be assured that supporting such organizations gives a gentler alternative to capitalism that is red in tooth and claw.
Perhaps the real heroes of this temperate rebellion will be the new breed of social entrepreneurs that can take advantage of this business format though many of these people may not have seen the opportunities available to them yet. The true tragedy of the failure of the capitalist system is the under employed young talent (and for that matter not so young talent!) that is currently rotting on the vine and passed off as acceptable collateral damage. It is though a forlorn hope to look for answers in Wall Street or the Square Mile. Rather than seeking the occupation of the temples of materialism the energy and ability of all those that seek a better way should be put in the service of providing employment and personal fulfillment for those that the current system has cast aside. This may entail more frustration and privation than a night spent in a tent and require the engagement of more intellectual muscle than an individual thought possible but at the end of the process this may be a world worth passing on to the next generation.