Celebrating workers\’ co-ops

One of my pet themes, I know, that capitalism and free (ish) markets are two entirely different things.

John Lewis has been crowned Britain\’s favourite shop.

John Lewis is clearly competing very well indeed in a free(ish) market. But it\’s not a capitalist organisation, it\’s a workers\’ co-op.

There is no necessity at all for all organisations in a market economy to be capitalist. It might well be that it\’s the best ownership system for some and not others (certainly true), it might even be that it\’s not the best system for any (not that I would go that far).

The way to find out of course is to have a free(ish) market in methods of organisation and ownership and see what happens.


10 thoughts on “Celebrating workers\’ co-ops”

  1. The co-op idea might well be the future for a lot of companies.

    It certainly would have given dodgy bankers and investors a different incentive if they’d had their own money invested in the company that they were screwing over.

  2. But freedom leads to “inappropriate” outcomes. So much better for bien pensant commentators to emerge and decide. Or at least that’s what Polly thinks.

  3. Of course JL is a capitalist outfit. It’s just owned by a lot of little capitalists instead of a few big ones. Capitalist success for everyone, please.

  4. I know a few things about co-ops that might be valuable insights, though I don’t know much about them in a formal sense.

    My very first awareness came at a very young age. My maternal grandparents lived in the very first established housing co-op (in the Bronx (NYC). It’d been realized under auspices of the Amalgamated Garment Workers Union (and, to this day, is still “the Amalgamated”. Residents, 10,000 or so, were very nearly all poor or near-poor Jews, most from the “lower East Side.” I never lived there but, with my parents, visited fairly frequently.

    When I was 8 or 9, my grandfather explained the co-op as originating with a particular group organized to provide a “minyan” (a “quorum” for services); consisting of a couple dozen who could be called for such duty. He was one of the original but there was one leader, surnamed Kazan, not different in position but possessed of leadership quality—assuming command in any given circumstance and providing spark and vision.

    The same men (and others) were also organized in a “bund” ( band, bond, or brotherhood), a group whose main function was buying land for Jewish burial, involving not only collection of money from members but, between purchases, careful investment of sums on hand: some into personal and business loans to members but principally ordinary stocks, bonds, etc. He told me that even by the early 1920s, they called these “mutual funds” and depended on discussion, approval and advice of those respected for conservatism. (Noteworthy is that most were “good socialists,” whether actually communists or not.) My grandfather was particularly proud that the groups’ investments enabled members to ride out the Great Depression so that almost no “Amalgamated” residents suffered adversity during that period.
    And, though my grandfather acknowledged the paramount roles played by Kazan and others (including himself) who contributed individual effort, expertise (accountancy, etc.), business sense, and wisdom to these effort, he saw it as a product of “socialism at work” to the end of his days.

    Many years later, in the 1980s, I had occasion to do a favor for a friend who had become involved with a bunch of Cambodian immigrants, some operating independently, some as companies in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle/Tacoma, WA). They were engaged in foraging forests for a variety of products, chiefly floral “greens,” (to Europe through established exporters) or exotic wild mushrooms marketed worldwide, also through specialized exporters. They wished to better their situation by “cutting out the middlemen,” whom they believed to be reaping the lion’s share of the proceeds. Thus, it occurred that they might benefit by forming a co-op, not only in sales, but by group purchase of many nputs . Researching the potential and start-up problems, I wrote to a prominent DC attorney specialized in such matters: he was particularly in agricultural (rice being one)) outfits. To my surprise, he phoned me and, though his rate was $500/hr.–a huge amount in those days—spent more than an hour on the phone with me discussing the matter.

    The gist of what he explained to me was that co-ops were, except for a few peculiarities of their legal organization, exactly like all for-profit companies. He insisted that, in his entire experience, he’d never come across one that didn’t have a specific individual as its driving force, it’s entrepreneur, each one of whom was in it primarily for what he and his family might “get out of it.” Basically, he told me that if I neither saw myself as fulfilling that role nor was capable of identifying someone specific connected with the business in such position, I should just forget the entire matter and save myself time and aggravation—there wasn’t the slightest chance of success for a “grass-roots” effort. Well, I was getting some of the most expert advice available for free–so I took it!

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