Sunday, 15 October 2017

Cooperation: A New Order of Life?

[A review of ‘Victorian Agitator – George Holyoake: co-operation as this new order of life’, by Stephen Yeo, Brighton: EER Edward Everett Root Publishers, 2017.]

When it comes to someone like George Holyoake, even a superlatives-packed introduction would come across as an understatement.

He was an outstanding champion of the cooperative movement in its formative decades, helping to inspire an ever growing number of workers to get involved with the new form of enterprise that would strive to be fair as well as productive. He was an astute advocate for democracy, pressing constantly for improvements such as the secret ballot, which he defended against the likes of J. S. Mill, who did not appreciate that, so long as vast inequality in power existed, many would not dare to vote openly against the wishes of the rich and powerful.

Of course Holyoake himself never hesitated to express his views regardless of what the rich and powerful might think. When militarist nationalism gripped the country, he lambasted the rise of jingoism (indeed he coined the term). When people whose reason and conscience held them back from subscribing to any religious belief, came under attack from those in authority, he argued for secularism (yet another term he invented). And it should be remembered that his readiness to speak up for his beliefs did not rest on any special protection granted to him. Indeed, in 1842, on a dubious charge of blasphemy, he was sent to prison.

In this bicentennial year of George Holyoake’s birth, Stephen Yeo has given us a fascinating new book on this indefatigable reformist. ‘Victorian Agitator’ introduces us to the man with not just an enduring philosophy, but an endearing personality, whose warmth was as ever present as his wit.

In addition to the biographical portrait, however, Yeo also presents us with an inviting canvas on which he had brought together Holyoake’s lifelong endeavours in the shape of three interrelated aspirations: the development of a reformist and non-statist form of socialism; the promotion of an autonomous moral tradition; and the cultivation of what is akin to a religion of cooperation.  

While many readers will enjoy the incidents and anecdotes from Holyoake’s life relayed earlier in the book, it is this second half that shows how relevant Holyoake’s ideas remain to this day. Recurring economic crises and deepening social fragmentation have left us in no doubt that an alternative is urgently needed from the failed market system.

Holyoake tirelessly advanced the cooperative form of economic association that can transcend exploitative relations without risking society being subsumed under some authoritarian collectivism. He made the case for mutual respect sustained by a social equality that would keep disdainful divisiveness at bay. And his secularism demonstrated that love for our fellow human beings could be celebrated without having to rely on any particular doctrine endorsed by an established religion.

If these strands could be joined into a reform agenda, backed by a sense of moral commitment, and fuelled by a passion that responds to a commanding cause, a new order of life may well be possible. ‘Cooperation, not exploitation’ could be its rallying call. Read Yeo’s book, and help answer the call.

1 comment:

Ed Mayo said...

Excellent review. Thanks Henry