The debate over the nature of society is not a new one. The sort of moral panic we are witnessing today, with claims about a ‘broken society’, are a dim echo of the horrors conjured up by Victorian social commentators and novelists who witnessed the brutality human beings were capable of when uprooted from their familiar culture and packed into over-populated, under-serviced industrial towns.
The most lasting and effective response to this dislocation and disempowerment was the rise of the co-operative movement, growing from the demand for wholesome food by the celebrated Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, and rapidly expanding until all areas of social and economic life were encompassed.
In the last half of the twentieth century, the co-operative movement struggled to maintain its identity against the onslaught of market ideology, but it has been in resurgent form in recent years and has demonstrated particular resilience in the face of financial crisis, largely the result of its alternative business model that does not focus primarily on capital.
Individualism wins out
The pressure of individualist, financialised motivations squeezed the mutual sector, and especially the financial mutuals. This began with the demutualisation of the building societies, allowing current investors to raid the savings of the generations who preceded them. Next came a competition for savings between the steady and secure building societies and the online and offshore ‘banks’, whose high interest rates were based on riskier and less ethical investments that were outside the remit of the mutuals. Fortunately, there were enough people committed to the mutual ethic to keep the building societies afloat until the competitive economy fell under its own weight.
Like the other sectors of the co-operative economy, the building societies remain the viable alternative to risk capitalism, and like the movement as a whole they are thriving. The latest figures for UK co-operatives show that from 2007 to 2009, turnover increased from £12.7 to £16.3bn, with membership increasing from 8.2m to 9.5m. From insurance to a pint in the pub, from internet to food shopping, there is always a co-operative alternative. That looks like a pretty big society to me.
In the influential sociological analysis of late capitalism he called Risk Society, Ulrich Beck made a convincing case that the social and economic structures of modernity have undermined the communitarian ethic that our grandparents worked so hard to build. High levels of insecurity and aversion to risk are the result. We are offered finance-based insurance, when what we are seeking is deep human relationships and strong communities. Risk Society was published in 1986, long before social life itself was, for many, primarily focused around a computer screen.
Forgetting the commons
Individualism was the hallmark of the market ideologues, and was made a tenet of faith by the Conservative governments that dominated UK public policy for nearly 20 years from 1979. The disfiguring consequences are still clear in the widely held but mistaken belief that selfishness and greed are necessary characteristics of a successful businessperson. This destructive worldview has surfaced again and again in my local work to propagate the Stroud pound. Many of our small shopkeepers feel that engaging in a scheme that benefits the community at large would itself constitute bad business. In reality their attitude serves only the corporations, who are now free to pick off the local traders one by one.
We have always lived in a big society and perhaps the proudest example of the way people can work together for the benefit of all was the co-operative society itself. The question is whether the mutual ethic that fostered a spirit of sharing and reciprocal support for 150 years has survived the social experiment of Thatcherism.
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