Colin Dodson is IT coordinator at the Common Ground Food Co-op.
The last two years have given us plenty of reason to grow weary of “politics” and lose faith in the political structures around us, but as a cooperative, Common Ground is inherently a political organization as much as it is an economic one, and, in my opinion, it’s high time that we engage politically with our owners.
As we look toward a new year amidst political and economic turmoil, I want to look back to our cooperative roots. Common Ground is a cooperative, but what does that really mean? Let’s start with a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.
Are Cooperatives Socialist?
To get an idea of what answers this question might have, I’ll provide a little bit more context. What is a cooperative? When and where do cooperatives come from? And how are co-ops related to socialism?
There are many kinds of cooperatives, rooted in several traditions, but I’m going to focus on the lineage that Common Ground and most co-ops come from.
For this purpose, I’m going to start right around 1800. Revolutions in nearly every aspect of human life marked the turn of the century as the Industrial Revolution, the dying years of monarchy and feudalism, the rise of capitalism, liberal democracy and the enlightenment dramatically transformed society.
While developing capitalism and technology were able to create an abundance of material goods, they also created their own new forms of oppression and suffering—artisans’ guilds (and skilled trades generally) lost a great deal of agency as human skills were replaced with automation, mass manufacturing and low-skill repetitive labor, and, at the same time, working conditions became more and more dangerous as working hours drew out ever longer in order to maximize the profits of factory, mine and mill owners.
At the same time, enlightenment-era idealists, philanthropists and philosophers saw this suffering, and a few tried to do something about it. This gets me to the intersection of socialism and the cooperative movement.
Born in Newtown, Wales in 1771, Robert Owen came to manage textile mills in Lincolnshire, and eventually to co-own the textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland in 1799-1800. Working in and managing textile mills, Owen developed his own spiritual, social and economic approaches to labor and community, which ultimately led to reducing working hours, providing free education to all workers and their families and emphasizing the needs and well being of labor when he gained the power to do so. Owens came to describe himself as both a socialist and a proponent of the cooperative movement, and later went on to found a planned utopian socialist/cooperative village in New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. This later experiment ultimately failed economically, in 1827, but the legacy Owen left continued into the Rochdale movement, and this is where socialism and the cooperative movement in Britain begin to part ways.
The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers
In 1844, a group of 28 people who were largely displaced skilled tradespeople founded a cooperative enterprise known as the Rochdale Society. In the beginning, it was a very small worker-owned and -managed retail business which carried only a few bare essentials such as butter, sugar, flour and candles. Over just a few years, business boomed, and their selection expanded to include most consumables, and even tobacco and tea. From such humble beginnings, they’d built a business that became renowned for its high quality, unadulterated goods.
What the Rochdale Society also produced was a set of guiding principles which has evolved into the Rochdale Principles that we still hold to this day. To put this into historical perspective with the development of socialism in the sense we know it today, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848.
This is not to say that Marx and Engels held wholly positive views toward the emerging cooperative movement—indeed, both offered tremendous criticism of both “utopian socialism” and emerging cooperatives as largely out of touch with material history and as isolated experiments in a sea of capitalism which did not directly challenge the structure and order of the prevailing mode of production in their day. All of this aside, Marx and Engels did rightfully credit Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers for their developments and recognition of the material conditions of the working (or proletarian) classes.
Okay, so what does all of this mean?
The cooperative movement and socialism are distinct from each other, but they are close cousins. Socialism demands a wholescale transformation of society’s productive forces, and to immediately end capitalism. Cooperatives are a little different: they seek to do the best they can democratically within whatever economic system is present. So, cooperatives aren’t necessarily socialist, but they share a common root and are, in some cases, fully compatible with a socialist society.
Cooperatives come in many different forms—from worker co-ops and consumer co-ops to producer-, secondary- and hybrid co-ops—but each form shares critical features laid out in the principles by which they operate and the general structure of decision making and governance within and between co-ops. For example, Common Ground does not have “shareholders,” but “stakeholders,” and decision-making power is ultimately rooted in a democracy of consumers. That means you, as the consumer/stakeholder, are in charge.
If you’d like to learn more about how to exercise power as an owner of Common Ground or how to become an owner, reach out to the Common Ground board of directors (firstname.lastname@example.org) or marketing team (email@example.com ). The co-op belongs to its consumer-owners, and their participation keeps our collective faith in a better business model alive.