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Co-operatives can help unlock the future

Imagine, if you will, a global society of communities whose citizens wake each day filled with enthusiasm about the prospect of working together, co-operating on the land and in the buildings they own to meet their needs for food, clothing, housing, education, health and transport.

These people don’t have “jobs”. There’s no employer, nor any employment contract. Their work is a contribution willingly given to the satisfaction of the needs of their community. The work they do entitles them to a share of the collective product.

These citizens aren’t living and working to pay off accumulated debt. They aren’t continuously bombarded with enticements to consume more products they never knew they needed. They've broken the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. None of the value they generate during the day is siphoned off for distribution as profits to external shareholders.

They meet regularly to review their needs and plan what they will do to improve their lives and communities. Because they are in control they can ensure that the way they live them is consistent with the continuation of life on the planet for generations. They aren’t driven by an economic system towering over them, demanding growth and bringing catastrophic impacts.

Some 150 years ago, when the industrial revolution brought intolerable conditions for the newly-urbanised workers and their families, 28 artisans, mostly weavers, in Rochdale near the city of Manchester in England formed a society on just these principles. Today it is a vast, worldwide movement encompassing hundreds of millions.

There are over 4,300 co-operatives in the UK alone, with over 11 million members and total assets of £8.5 billion. Together they create and sustain nearly 200,000 jobs and contribute some £27 billion in turnover. The most significant in terms of numbers are the consumer and worker co-operatives, co-operatives consortiums, agricultural co-operatives and housing co-operatives. The Co-operative is now the UK's biggest farmer.

Collectively-owned, democratically-controlled credit unions are one of the financial arms of the 150 year-old co-operative movement. Worldwide there are 186 million members of 54,000 credit unions in 97 countries. Credit unions offer cheap loans to their members who save regularly. Unlike the world of fantasy finance, credit unions lend less than they have on deposit.

The survival and worldwide development of the movement is a remarkable testimony to its strength, resilience and sustainability. The movement is a testimony to its own historical necessity.

But for many who share its principles the old-style co-op seems inadequate to the urgent tasks presented by climate change, resource depletion, economic and financial meltdown, and a clutch of life-threatening pandemics.

So a new movement is spreading rapidly throughout the world, calling itself “transition” and reinventing the very same principles of co-operation that have bound people together throughout human history. Moves are afoot in Wales at least, to bring the two together in a potentially powerful coalition – a co-operative transition which could direct itself to achieving the profound systemic changes now urgently needed.

Meanwhile, in the Welsh Assembly, David Melding, Conservative chair of a new cross-party group, sees a bigger role for co-ops but only within the framework of the status quo. Melding denied that the co-operative movement was unfamiliar ground for Conservatives adding. "It seeks to enhance the forces of capitalism." This will be news to many in the co-operative movement in Wales who see themselves as opponents of capital, dealing with its worst effects.

Amidst the slide to economic slump and state bankruptcy, a moment of political truth is approaching for the co-operative movement in Britain. It needs to break its long association with Labour and form new alliances to enable it realise its full potential by being part of a transition to a society based entirely on co-operation and not competition.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
2 December 2009

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