Saturday, 3 July 2010

Against Power Inequalities

The Cooperative Movement in the UK has been organising a fortnight of activities to promote awareness and understanding of the cooperative model, in the run-up to the UN International Day of Cooperatives (3 July 2010).

Under the banner of ‘There is an alternative’, it showcases the numerous examples of cooperative enterprise. There are over 4,800 independent cooperatives in the UK, operating successfully in diverse fields, from healthcare to housing, farms to football clubs, food retailing to funeral service, credit unions to community owned shops, pubs to public relations, wind farms to web design. Most importantly it draws attention to cooperation as a different, vibrant, inclusive way of life which shuns exploitation, and takes as its foundation the voluntary collaboration of equals in achieving common goals.

Many individuals and organisations still maintain that it is not viable for people to run businesses, the economy, or society on a cooperative basis where everyone has equal power in shaping the key decisions. These anti-egalitarians come up with endless excuses for why power has to be concentrated in some (usually them) for the world to work as it should. Without deference, fear, submissive compliance, they decry, chaos would prevail.

I have studied these enemies of the cooperative ethos and examined how for centuries they have deployed a variety of tactics to frighten and deceive people into accepting power inequalities as the necessary social norm. My book, Against Power Inequalities, recounting their ideological manoeuvres and how progressive-minded activists have throughout history sought to counter them is now published and aptly launched as part of the Cooperative Movement’s celebration of the International Day of Cooperatives (

The theme of this year’s International Day is on how cooperatives empower women to participate as equals when in so many parts of the world, and certainly in all too many business organisations, women still have less say than men. Cooperatives show that decision making by people as equals, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, your parents’ wealth, or any other factors which should have no bearing on the respect for you as a person, can lead to positive and sustainable outcomes for all concerned. They also demonstrate that the wealth generated by the efforts of everyone does not have to be distributed disproportionately in favour of the few powerful men and their exclusive network of elites. Instead, a fair distribution considered and agreed by every member of the enterprise – one member, one vote – is not only do-able, but engenders a real spirit of mutual help and respect.

But as with every democratic form of co-existence, even the most effective cooperatives have to cope with individuals and organisations which persist in rejecting their ethos. Until cooperatives become the standard model for joint enterprise everywhere, they will have to hold their own, stay true to their principle, and keep persuading others to embrace the cooperation of equals as the foundation of all human activities.

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