What is, as I see it, the co-operative view on the occupy protests?
First, we recognise that this is a social movement – fluid, based on values, open and creative. Many of the great changes that underpin society today – votes for women, tackling racism, the recognition of human rights – have emerged from social movements. The co-operative sector is also a social movement and it is an economic actor. We have opportunities both to offer and to learn in our overlapping engagement with the protests.
Second, we endorse the fundamental questions the protests ask of today’s economy. In simple terms, if capitalism is the idea that economic activity should be directed solely towards a return on capital, then not only is it a nonsense, but we have never lived in a capitalist society. Family, state, and community shape every aspect of economic life. Money, money, money is not just a poor proxy for well-being, it is an impoverished and flawed account of individual behaviour and meaning. The greatest co-operative enterprise is about finding ways for the people involved in a business to be masters and not slaves to the cold and inappropriate logics of distant finance.
Third, we applaud the focus on the inequalities between the one and the ninety nine per cent. We know, as enterprises, that since the 1980s, with the removal of financial market regulation and capital controls, that the gains from business in orthodox markets no longer go to the workers. It used to be that wages by and large tracked productivity increases. The gains were shared. But in the last two decades, the productivity gains in an economy are taken by the shareholders. It becomes a winner takes all economy. The spread of credit has allowed the rich to lend to the poor, to let them into consumer lifestyles and entitlements, but it has been a house of cards. The way to tackle debt crises, as we knew from the Jubilee 2000 campaign, is to share responsibility between creditors and debtors – not to impose self-defeating austerity that costs only those in pain already.
Fourth, having visited St Paul’s in London over the period of the protests, I would say that we welcome the maturity that has generally been shown in the actions to date, not least in terms of using models of participative and consensual democratic engagement. Every business could learn from what it really takes to treat people with respect and equality, what it takes to develop responsibility – some in theory of our fundamental co-operative values. Nothing is perfect, but the protests have shown that if previous years of complaint – Seattle and beyond – were led by non-governmental organisations, this movement is different. It is a spread of self-governing organisers and they are on the rise.
When protest turns to the reinvention of business and markets, co-operatives can welcome home all those who believe in a people-centred economy. We have huge challenges in years to come – the instability of markets is small compared to the volatility of habitats, climate and resources under pressure. We had better all start protesting – and all start co-operating.