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We must avoid a new wrong turn of cooperativism: the strategic danger of collaborative ‘consumption’

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
25th June 2012


Natalia Fernandez of Lasindias.net argues:

By severing cooperativism from its communal origins and and focusing on consumption, British cooperativism and the ICA caused lasting damage to the transformative capacity of cooperativism, which we should not repeat today in the debate between the economy of the commons and collaborative consumption.

She explains why (please note the original article has many links):

“The emerging forms of capital (the commons) and consumption of the P2P mode of production …open two different worlds.

One of the narratives that has done the most damage to the mutualist tradition is making the starting point for the History of Cooperativism the birth of modern consumer cooperativism, the famous “Rochdale Pioneers” of 1844. This overlooks pre-existing and very widespread communally-based social organizations which, at that time, had already been around (in some cases) for fifty years, and had become agrarian and worker cooperatives. This narrative, which continues to be the official line of the International Cooperative Alliance, and which we still find on Wikipedia, diverges from cooperativism of the commons.

It wasn’t an innocent narrative or simply erroneous. In the early continental cooperative world, mutualism, cooperativism, and later, Catholic social doctrine, located the key to the “social problem” in production, and were able to offer a continuity between the resistance to the deamortization of the communal carried out by the liberals and the alternatives to flourishing industrial capitalism. However, in Great Britain, it was Anglican Liberals and Social Christians who, following the Owenite tradition, led the birth of the First British Co-operative Congress. For them, focusing on consumption was a way to confront the growing radicalization of the workers’ movement and “contamination” by “continental ideas.” That’s why they attribute the origins of cooperativism to Robert Owens, a liberal philanthropist, and date the birth of cooperativism to the Rochdale Pioneers (consumer cooperativism).

In 1895, after many difficulties caused by their interest in including traditional capitalist businesses, Neal, Wolff and Holyoyake managed to pull off the first assembly of the International Cooperative Alliance. It goes without saying that attendees were mostly British: along with Great Britain, most delegates came from Australia, India and Ireland, it was considered a great success to include German Christian cooperativism and its circle of influence. In other words, there was a clear Social Chrisian hegemony. That’s why they made an “apolitical” approach one of the bases of the movement, which left out most of European cooperativism, which was tied to the Catholic parties, the socialist parties, or libertarian syndicalism.

Without a doubt, it was a political masterstroke… for the English Social Christians. However, the damage is visible today: cooperativism, broadly speaking, does not recognize itself in the commons… even though the commons is the primary value of its origins and the primary path to its future.

Will we make the same mistakes?
Today, we face a similar dilemma. The tradition of Anglo-Saxon social criticism understands economic democracy as a sort of “consumer democracy” and from that point of view, “collaborative consumption,” the “sharing economy,” would be the defining center of the evolution of the mode of production beyond industrial capitalism.

But, in the end, a mutual insurance company doesn’t transform economic relationships if it isn’t part of, and subject to, a broader democratic community where most of the weight necessarily falls on worker co-ops. A good part of the insurers in Europe and the U.S. are mutuals, which is to say, consumer co-ops… but most of the members don’t even know they are part of a cooperative structure.

A similar thing is happening with the practices of the “sharing economy.” Collaborative consumption is not part of the transition towards a P2P mode of production if it’s not within the framework of the development of the communal, and P2P production, just as consumer cooperativism doesn’t generate a democratic economy if it’s not part of a cooperative industrial community.

By severing cooperativism from its communal origins and and focusing on consumption, British cooperativism and the ICA caused lasting damage to the transformative capacity of cooperativism, which we should not repeat today in the debate between the economy of the commons and collaborative consumption. That’s why, when we talk about developing an economic and social theory that explains and drives the transition away from the forms of production in which we live, we should not repeat the mistake.”

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One Response to “We must avoid a new wrong turn of cooperativism: the strategic danger of collaborative ‘consumption’”

  1. Devin Says:

    Excellent post. If I may restate it in a sentence for my own use: “collaborative consumption is insufficient alone to capture the economic transition we hope to see, a deliberate focus on peer production is also necessary if not more important.”

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