Occupy business

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.

7 thoughts on “Occupy business

  1. You should go down and show them some leadership. We all know that they don’t like capitalism but I haven’t heard one of them outline a coherent alternative yet. It’s time for mutualism to step up to the plate.

  2. Great post Ed, and not before time.
    You end by urging us all to get involved in the protest, but my sense is that the cooperative movement is not an active player in this struggle, where it should be. Instead it feels like the movement – in the UK at least – has instead chosen to stand on the sidelines and wait for change to come rather than become an actor in making that change happen. What’s the position of Co-operatives UK on this issue – a watching brief or an active campaigner?

    Ed says: we can’t wait around for change to come, but i guess we should play to our strengths in what we do. Campaigning on inequality was an example this year – we are regaining the confidence as a movement to call for economic sanity. Ideas on a postcard please!

  3. I agree, Charlie.

    Three of my colleagues have given seminars at the Occupy LSX ‘Tent University’ and it would be good to see Ed at such a seminar, presenting the co-operative movement as it could and should be – and sometimes is.

  4. Great post, Ed. We know you can’t be everywhere, so it’s important that co-operators on the ground – and especially in London – learn from the new grass roots manifestations, and understand their potential in terms of co-operation. As a wise person once said, “The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. So let’s forge some links!”

  5. Ed, Our business, a social enterprise began as the result of an occupation. The place was Chapel Hill, North Carolina where our founder fasted from a tent for the US to sign the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural rights, which became the policy guide for our approach.

    He’d begun in 1996, with a critique of traditional capitalism in white paper proposing a people-centered alternative economic paradigm

    The two outcomes from this fast were that the senator I’d relayed his progress to later opened the Center on Poverty Work and Opportunity on campus at UNC and we brought this ‘profit for purpose’ business model to the UK.

  6. Ed very interestingly less than one month after this insightful post you find yourself at an event this week with The Department of BIS that pretty much proves:
    1. everything you’ve written above;
    2. that what appears to be at the very heart of the Occupy campaign is actually already occurring;
    3. and that those in power that think they know about this actually have not got the faintest idea of the potential of what is unfolding…

    …we are redesigning the fundamentally flawed, old century economic model from the community up, it is already happening and it is already growing so rapidly that it cannot be stopped!

    Get this…along the way we are empowering the 1%, tackling fuel poverty, redesigning Young People’s attitude to engagement with their community, creating a version of micro-finance for groups of people in a developed country by literally “Occupying business” and redirecting the profits of The Corporation, influencing behaviour change to low carbon choices in this transition era and a plethora of other positive community, spiritual, social and environmental impacts (John Elkington would be stunned!)

    Group buying – people buying stuff together – collective purchasing, co-operatives, clubs, syndicates – groups of people do it all over the UK, we buy pretty much anything a group of people want to buy. It works. It reinvents. It challenges. The movement is huge and yet it has the very deceptive flavour of a little community project! The truth is that this is about as “disruptive” as any business model that has ever been designed. When I think about what we are doing at Community Buying unLimited it reminds me of this quote: “They say my work is just a drop in the ocean. I say the ocean is made up of drops” and whilst we are not under illusions of our grandeur, we are inspired by Mother Theresa’s concept as we go about our mission: to join up those dots of these amazing groups of ordinary people redesigning our economy for ordinary people.

    I see from Barbara’s comment above they have seminars at Occupy – let’s go and do it – if we could inspire the Occupy protests around the world to see that what they want is actually being done already, we’d be lassoing a captive audience to go and replicate our models and they could harness those qualities you’ve outlined above to literally Occupy Business.

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