Between you and me...

No more financial meltdown, poor communication and substandard food – if we ditch the middlemen and get co-operative, what couldn’t we achieve?

I have been working out how to escape from capitalism and live like a king into the bargain. I was doing this anyway, but since the banking collapse, to explore new ways of doing business seems more sensible than ever.

Inspired by GK Chesterton’s view that trade in the Middle Ages was carried out under the principles of co-operation rather than, as in our age, competition, I have been trying to stop dealing with any company that is quoted on the stock market. It seems to me that this is the heart of the problem: any company whose shares are publicly available and tradable commodities is always necessarily going to put the interests of its shareholders – which coincidentally, happen to be the same as the interests of its directors, because they are generally the biggest shareholders – before quality of product, staff welfare, customer service or pleasure and fun in the workplace.

What’s more, the big shareholder-owned companies are run on the outdated principles of greed, materialism and macho posturing. Their chairmen are generally there because they put money above morality; they are unafraid of sacking 5,000 people or reducing wages in order to fill up their own coffers.

A business run on cooperative lines is a completely different beast, however. Here we see the principle of ‘seizing the means of production’ in action. Co-ops are established on the principles of mutual aid, the phrase loved by the great 19th-century Russian anarchist Prince Kropotkin. As a result, the co-ops tend to be staffed by more intelligent, more courteous and more humane people than the brutal capitalist monsters. They do not feel that they are being exploited and therefore are able to act as themselves, and not according to some script imposed on them.

Three examples come to mind now. First, there is the Co-operative Bank. I moved here from First Direct three years ago and my experience has been excellent. The staff on the phone are always very good and, bar the occasional unsolicited phone call trying to sell me credit cards – which I intend never to have ever again – I’ve no complaints.

The Co-operative Bank was founded in 1872. As a reaction against the brutal capitalism of the dominant culture, the 19th century saw a welter of co-operative groups spring up, all of which harked back to the Guilds system of the Middle Ages, where members looked after one another, for example when sick.

It’s true that the bank is run as a big business with three million customers, but we do know at least that it has an ethical investment policy, unlike any other high-street bank, and that because it is not greed-locked, it has been able to thrive in recent conditions, when all other banks have suffered. Its directors are paid well but not absurdly.

The co-operative movement as a whole was founded in 1844 by a group called the Rochdale Pioneers. The principle of their food shop on Toad Lane was that the customers had a stake in the shop and would share profits. This gives a completely different impetus to a business than that given by a shareholder system.

In December I finally escaped the clutches of BT and Tiscali, and transferred phone calls and internet to the Phone Co-op. Again, this is not a shareholder-owned company, so is different in its very nature. It doesn’t spend millions advertising how cheap it is – it simply is cheap. I reckon I will be able to save hundreds of pounds a year, and again, I am not merely serving the interests of a millionaire board member.

The other revelation at the Phone Co-op was the fantastically good and friendly customer service. It’s the same with Suma, the wholefood wholesaler. Every three months or so, as part of a local food group, we place an order. Again, the staff are intelligent and friendly without being hard-sell or smarmy. Co-ops make trade into a pleasure rather than a stressful process.

Here is a movement that was started by the people, for the people. Not by governments. The Government has been curiously silent on the matter of co-operative approaches lately, engaged as it is on the ludicrous and hopeless task of trying to keep a dying system afloat.

Clearly, then, we all need to disengage from any dealings with shareholder-owned companies and switch to co-ops. This is fairly easily done with food, banking and telecoms, but what about transport, which is every household’s highest weekly cost? Can we imagine petrol co-ops, car co-ops, train coops? We need urgently to get the Bransons and other greed-mongers out of the picture. We need to get the tax-eating politicians out of the picture. We need to recreate our own new systems, and the co-operative movement is a wonderful place to start.

Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)

Illustration: David Humphries

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

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