Co-operation and Economic Democracy

Speakers: Donna Loftus, Nicole Robertson, Peter Gurney

Chair: Matthew Francis

The Co-operative movement was a cornerstone of working-class life between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. However, historians have often been unsure about how to fit it into wider narratives of economic and political modernisation. This session reconsiders the place of the Co-operative movement in the history of modern Britain and aims to shed light on a number of key questions. For example, did the movement represent the democratization of the economy or the displacement of politics? In what ways did it reconfigure the relationship between the enfranchisement of men and women and the power of capital? Between them the three papers consider co-operative business and culture and seek to address broader questions about class formation and the politics of production and consumption. The session will consider whether co-operation provided a viable alternative to capitalism and whether it empowered people as producers and consumers in the marketplace. Considering the often contentious contemporary debates that surrounded co-operative ventures, the session asks what the movement can tell us about the history of capitalism.

Paper 1 Abstract: Capitalism for all: co-operative production in mid-nineteenth century Britain

Donna Loftus, Open University

In the 1850s co-operative production became a popular panacea for social and economic problems. As the Chartist Land Plan and the Rochdale Pioneers demonstrated the potential of working-class capital to transform communities, radicals and liberals placed the co-partnership of capital and labour at the centre of a vision of the future social economy built on negotiation, consensus sand mobility. Believing that a more equitable capitalism would promote social peace and economic prosperity, campaigns focussed on the reform of industrial organisation to make profit-sharing businesses and worker co-operatives easier to establish. The reform of company law in 1856 was presented as the unfettering of capitalism, allowing all men of talent regardless of class the opportunity to combine and prosper. In the years after reform a number of co-operative businesses were established with some like the Sun Mill cotton spinning factory becoming models of industrial democracy, attracting visitors from all over Britain and overseas. The turbulent history of these ventures and the persistence of industrial unrest strengthened the voices of critics who dismissed such concerns as utopian distractions. The paper will examine the rise and fall of co-operative production to examine what it tells us about the history of capitalism. It demonstrates how languages of economic democracy were accompanied by concepts of capital’s innate qualities which were used to build hierarchies around ideas of expertise. It also examines how contemporary questions about the difference between co-operative production and a regular joint stock company exposed both the myth of the free market and of equitable capitalism itself.

Paper 2 Abstract: Defending and educating the consumer: the Co-operative movement and ‘food for all’

Nicole Robertson, Northumbria University 

In the nineteenth century, the Co-operative movement was founded to provide wholesome, unadulterated food for its customer-members. The co-operative retail system was organised and controlled by the consumer according to the Rochdale Pioneers’ concept of economic democracy. Protecting the consumer remained of central importance in the twentieth century and it can be argued that the movement was a substantial force in the defence of consumer interests. The business ethos and structure of the co-operative movement, designed as it was to empower the consumer, was conveyed to members in a number of ways.  The principles of co-operation and ownership were often structured around the principles of ‘food for all’. This paper will explore these themes by discussing the work of the Co-operative movement and its engagement with the consumer during the period of the First World War and the interwar years.

Paper 3 Abstract: ‘The Curse of the Co-ops’: co-operation, the mass press and the market in interwar Britain

Peter Gurney, University of Essex

The British Co-operative movement was a central institution of working-class life between the wars, with 6.5 million members in the early 1930s. The movement’s phenomenal success inevitably brought it into conflict with private capitalists and government that sought to contain co-operators’ ambition. The movement’s ideologues proclaimed that the great lesson of the depression was that markets ought to be regulated by the democratic will of the people and that continued co-operative growth proved that this was entirely practicable. This paper assesses the threat co-operation posed to economic and business elites in this period, highlighting particularly co-operators’ critique of the myth of the free market and the advantages of free enterprise in the context of the rapid growth of combines and syndicates during the interwar years. It explores co-operators’ thwarted attempt to regulate markets in the interest of working-class shoppers by means of the Consumers’ Council Bill after 1929, then goes on to discuss the ‘penal’ taxation imposed on the Co-operative movement as a kind of disciplinary measure by the National Government in 1933. The role of the mass press provides a vital thread in the story throughout, for the anti-co-operative ‘crusade’ was fervently taken up by the press barons, Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere, who used their considerable power to try to extinguish the largest democratic movement of consumers in modern British history.



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