Co-operatives can help us fix our broken economy. Labour is right to embrace them

The Co-operative Party celebrated its 100th anniversary last weekend. Its ideas are more important than ever.

Photo credit: Co-operative Party / Krzysztof Kseba

The value of co-operation lies at the heart of the Labour movement. That was the message from Jeremy Corbyn at last weekend’s Co-operative party conference. But those co-operative ideas will require a shake-up of our economy – one that redefines the role of trade and resource allocation in our society.

The principles at the heart of co-operation are being reasserted by a resurgent Labour party: it has committed to doubling the size of the co-operative sector, and spreading the ideas of mutual support and community-run enterprise.

In his speech to Labour’s 2017 Conference in Brighton, Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell said:

“Ours will only become an economy for the many, if we significantly broaden ownership. That means supporting entrepreneurs, small businesses, the genuinely self-employed and massively expanding worker control and the co-operative sector.”

The ability to exchange is common in social animals: different species often complement each other’s behaviour. Take the Oxpecker bird, which eats ticks in the Zebra’s coat. Both organisms benefit from this transaction – the bird has a ready source of food, while the zebra no longer has to suffer the annoyance of parasitic insects.

It’s fair to assume that trade is another feature of this kind of symbiosis. Once humans had developed the capacity for language then we could go from basic sharing of food to complex systems of value and exchange. With language, we developed a host of abstract economic concepts that govern our society – from debt to the monetary conversation of goods.

This has brought immense benefits: without these complex and abstract economic ideas the great achievements of civilisation wouldn’t have been possible. Practices like the division of labour and specialisation have generated previously unknown levels of wealth and prosperity. But they also objectify human beings: we become nodes in vast economic network, mere units of production.

The extension of market thinking into every sphere of our lives distorts the true function of society. Because civilisation is there to make our lives better, to improve the lot of all who make it up. When we start to consider homes as assets, as investments that yield profit, then we subvert their true value: providing security and shelter. The market is a powerful tool in the way we conceptualise human organisation. But its extension to every part of our existence degrades us all.

In contrast, the co-operative model ensures mutual ownership and shared wealth. What we make collectively, we share collectively. Decisions are made by the many, pooling our expertise and experience.

From a market perspective, this makes perfect sense. A co-operative start-up is twice as likely to survive its first year when compared to a hierarchical business. A shared stake in a business has also been shown to improve productivity: if I don’t pull my weight then I’m letting down my fellow co-operators and potentially reducing my own income.

As Jeremy Corbyn outlined during his speech, digital communication technology is one way enhance our democratic potential. With it, big organisations can propose and vote in a truly dynamic way – allowing all members to have a say both rapidly and efficiently. We can pool our collective knowledge more effectively, and offer new ways of running organisations and holding them to account

Market socialism, where we harness the dynamism of the market while discarding its cruelties, is the most effective expression of our best economic tools and our instinct to work together.

Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to double the co-operative sector is the kind of bold thinking we need in stagnant and alienating times. Our economic models have vastly enriched us – now it’s time to share the fruits of these endeavours.

Gus Carter is a Labour and Co-op Party activist

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