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The Co-operative Alternative

hiddenalternativeThe central premise of The Hidden Alternative - Co-operative values, past, present and future is "the belief that co-operation offers a real and much-needed alternative for the organisation of human and social affairs"  -  an alternative vision to state-led and free market capitalism options.

The book, then, is a serious contribution to revealing the nature of co-operation and co-operatives and aims to  "stimulate further research and both academic and public debate about co-operative solutions to the pressing global  problems of the twenty-first century.

Neo-conservative Orthodoxy

The global financial catastrophe of 2008 confirmed the suspicions of many that this " neo-conservative orthodoxy was inherently flawed, and that a new vision was needed of how the global economy might operate." The Global Financial Crisis "has exposed many of the inherent problems of investor-led corporate capitalism, including its propensity to rampant and perilous financial speculation, its lack of accountability to shareholders and governments, its dubious morality and its tendency to exacerbate social and economic inequalities."

The book is edited by Anthony Webster, Linda Shaw, John K. Walton, Alyson Brown and David Stewart.

Anthony Webster is Head of History at Liverpool John Moores University. Linda Shaw is Vice Principal of the Co-operative College, Manchester. John K. Walton is an Ikerbasque Research Professor at the University of the Basque Country, Bibao. Alyson Brown is Reader in History at Edge Hill University. David Stewart is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Central Lacashire.

The papers in the book are the proceedings of a July 2009 conference - Can Values Make a Difference/ Co-operatives - moving from the Rochdale Pioneers to the 21st Century.  There will be a follow-up conference on 3 -5 July 2012, in Manchester & Rochdale, UK - Mainstreaming Co-operation: An Alternative for the 21st Century?

In their Introduction to the book, the editors describe the July 2009 conference as  "a major conference of academics and co-operative practitiioners" which shared "the varied ways in which the values of co-operation have been interpreted and translated into action at different times and in different  places and contexts; how the basic philosophy which underpins the movement has been adapted to meet a diversity of circumstances and to overcome a wide range of obstacles and problems."  Over 100 delegates from 32  countries attended the conference. In this digital age it is a pity that it has taken two years for the proceedings to become available.

Co-operative Education

Certain common themes emerge from the contributions.  The centrality of co-operative education is one of these and this is explored  by several contributors - Keith Vernon in Values and vocation; educating the co-operative workforce, 1918-1939,  Linda Shaw in  International perspectives on co-operative education and Ferando Molina and John K. Walton in An alternative co-operative tradition: the Basque co-operatives of Mondragon.  What emerges from these contributions is that co-operative education is not simply imparting knowledge and skills. Co-operative education makes co-operators - holding the co-operative and its members together.  For co-operative education to succeed, however, it depends on co-operatives understanding and accepting its necessity, its purpose, its substance and its methods. When there is an absence of an ongoing co-operative education program, co-operatives can falter and deliberately move away from original form and functions - away from co-operative values and principles. The key to this move could be the appointment of a General Manager/ Chief Executive Officer who is agnostic about co-operative values and principles and leads the board on a path of conversion. The survival of co-operatives depends on the board and management continuing to be committed to co-operative ideals and member engagement and participation.

In Australia it is a challenge to persuade co-operatives to accept the centrality of co-operative education. There is a striking exception to this -  the Capricorn Society in Western Australia which for many years has embraced an ongoing co-operative education program with the UK Co-operative College. Capricorn was established in 1976. It has 12,000 automotive business members in Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of South Africa, It is one of two Australian members of the International Co-operative Alliance - the other member is also a West Australia co-operative CBH Group. Other co-operatives in Australia have not been willing to embrace an ongoing commitment to co-operative education but have, instead, participated in one-off or occasional workshops.

Co-operative Paradigm

In a concluding chapter, The Hidden Alternative: Conclusion, Ed Mayo proposes  that the co-operative alternative is in reality diverse with overlaying dimensions and co-operative ideology. He suggests that there is a need for "an alternative paradigm and not just an alternative practice." He believes that this is necessary to enable the articulation of a different understanding of economic life.   Mayo does not examine the nature of the co-operative paradigm.  The development of a co-operative paradigm requires agreement between co-operatives and co-operators that a paradigm is necessary and relevant and agreement on the elements of the paradigm including purpose, characteristics and differentiation.

Mayo's argument provides an insight into why most Australian co-operatives have not accepted the need for an ongoing co-operative education program. Historically, the development of Australia's co-operatives has been more pragmatic than ideological. While there has been a commitment to co-operatives, the commitment to co-operation and the development of co-operators has been more incidental than a planned outcome. In The Democracy Principle - Farmer Co-operatives in Twentieth Century Australia, Gary Lewis has documented that the absence or deterioration of a co-operative paradigm and a co-operative education program has led to  a  loss of co-operative identity and the demutualisation of  agricultural co-operatives. In his Preface, Lewis writes: "This book celebrates the vision and courage of farmer co-operators dedicated to the democracy principle while offering a sobering reminder that powerful forces inside and outside the co-operative movement do not share this vision.

There have been exceptions, of course, and the YCW Co-operative Movement in Australia in the 1950's - 1960's believed in and implemented an ongoing co-operative education program. The YCW Co-operative Movement was guided by clear objects, methods and principles based on Catholic social teaching and was developed in Australian by the YCW - the Catholic Young Christian Workers movement. The Australian YCW was established in Melbourne, Victoria, in 1941. The YCW Co-operative Movement endorsed six principles by which it set out to achieve its objects and judge its methods and these could be summarised as the primacy of the individual, social reform must come through education, education must begin with the economic, education must be through group action, effective social reform involves fundamental changes in social and economic institutions and the ultimate objective of the movement is a full and abundant life for everyone in the community.  This was a co-operative paradigm.

A  commitment to co-operation and the development of co-operators is fundamental to mainstreaming the co-operative alternative and without  this  there is insufficient understanding of the importance of co-operative education programs  to developing and maintaining the co-operative paradigm.

The dominance of pragmatic co-operation in Australia also explains the success of demutualisation of agricultural co-operatives and financial mutuals in Australia. The assessment of demutualisation has been pragmatic - rather than ideological.

Mayo concludes that the veiling of the co-operative alternative could simply be the result of the sweep of history - the interplay between conflict and co-operation. He suggests that its up to those involved and supporters of the co-operative ideal to mainstream co-operatives and co-operation. But, this has always been so. The absence of a co-operative paradigm has inhibiited co-operative advocacy and education.

In IYC 2012 this is an important book to consider in how to go beyond 2012 - through the development of a co-operative paradigm and the centrality of an ongoing co-operative education program.  These must underpin existing discussions in Australia  about improved national representation and advocacy - representing who and advocating what.

The Hidden Alternative: Co-operative values, past, present and future, Manchester University Press and United Nations University Press, 2011  Pbk 320pp,  9780719086564 A$39.95  NZ$57.95 There is a 15% discount and Free Freight. The book is available in Australia and New Zealand from Footprint Books. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Telephone: 02 9997 3973 Facsimile: 02 9997 3185 Download the order form for Australia and New Zealand.

Global News Hub

global news hub icaThe Global News Hub has been created by the Co-operative Press Ltd with the help of the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS News). The web site hosts text, pictures and video content. You can also subscribe to a mailing list.. [ more detail ]

Co-operative College

collegelogoThe UK Co-operative College is dedicated to the promotion of co-operative values, ideas and principles. It was established in 1919. In the UK the Co-operative College is developing new models to run schools as co-operatives.  [ more detail ]

IYC Australia 2012

iyc-logo australia_hyphenVisit the Australian  International Year of Co-operatives 2012 web site - established by the Australian IYC 2012 National Steering Committee. Visit the site for Australian activities and resources for the International Year of Co-operatives in Australia.  [ more detail ]