Co-operative News

A Reformer’s Legacy

Portrait of Robert Owen

Robert Owen by William Henry Brooke [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernie Sanders officially dismantled a social reform movement last week at the Democratic National Convention. But there’s another guy who made history with social reform by changing the very system that made him successful. A predecessor to socialism, his name has come up in the news lately: Robert Owen from Wales who lived from 1771 to 1858. He was a capitalist yet espoused reformist ideas that later empowered cooperatives in Britain and beyond. The Co-operative News recently reported that a collection of his letters are being archived. Owen was a pioneer who inspired cooperative development, and advanced progressive industrial practices.

He left school at age 10, then went on to succeed in manufacturing including owning a mill in Scotland. As an industrial leader Owen may not be akin to the consolidated 1% of wealth today but certainly held significant influence and power. And he had a moral agenda. He called for social reform even leading to the evolution of unionizing workers. His ideals for the well-being of workers and children were put into effect at his mill, New Lanark. He also aspired to act even more broadly to educate the young and made an effort to create a utopian society. These ideas eventually provided a foundation for the cooperative movement.

A collection of Owen letters is being archived at the  UK Memory of the World Register.
Also archived there is the Magna Carta written about in a previous blog post: The Magna Carta and Co-ops.  The archive is part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Here in the US in 2016, I’m thankful for Robert Owen’s progressive agenda still felt today. During this election year I see the same social problems festering that Owen fought: a lack of viable education and workers rights for the disenfranchised, especially with Bernie stepping down. I wish I could say Bernie is a reformist. Robert Owen clearly was. His top-down approach doesn’t seem likely to happen, but we can have faith that there is at least some historical precedence for it.

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Co-ops and Political Change

Co-ops could and should affect political policy. This is the thinking that I’ve read from several perspectives recently. And in a recent Co-operative News article linked here, the word manifesto is used to promote change.

Anthony Murray, a co-op focused journalist who also works with the International Co-operative Association (ICA), wrote the Co-operative News article which focuses on a recent meeting (in Britain of course) to address co-operatives being part of a social movement.

What happened at the meeting suggests that co-ops are part of a large social movement. The meeting was led by the the Social Economy Alliance. Six papers are outlined in the article that aim to modify government policy. Each paper offers co-ops as part of a solution. Central to what the government must do is address social concerns — a strong theme throughout, rooted in socially-based business models. Here’s a quote from proposal 4 called The Bare Necessities: Making Markets Work: “Social, co-operative, mutual and community owned enterprises are the key to the solution, sidestepping the struggle between statist intervention and private profiteering through real people power. This is good old-fashioned entrepreneurship grounded in a genuine connection and commitment to the community.”

In the US, others are discussing a larger change, too. Two notable experts come to mind: Gar Alperovitz and Marjorie Kelly. Alperovitz is author of America Beyond Capitalism. He suggests some kind of systemic  alternative is needed to the system of capitalism. Kelly is author of Owning Our Future who has a great term for a new kind of economy called a generative economy, as opposed to standard capitalist markets that are extractive.

The group in the UK is trying to tackle these issues, and its efforts pose something very significant by appealing to government. Richard Wolff, an American economist, says there is an inevitable political presence co-ops will have as they start to scale up. More about him in my next post.

Co-ops linked with policy and government present a real solution for society. Time will tell what kind of broader acceptance, and challenge to them, will take place.