28 June 2011

Wales: A Co-operative Nation?

Since I'm a bit short of time I thought I would share a short speech I gave earlier today at a meeting in Cardiff Bay for the Assembly Cross-Party Co-operative Group.

Last week we had the Chief Executive of the co-operative development organisation in British Columbia giving a lecture called 'Co-operation and the Wealth of Nations' here in Cardiff, in fact in the building where I work at UWIC in Llandaff as part of a nationwide speaking tour. He made an interesting and important point about the failure of our economy in recent years and how this is linked to the failure of our political system.

Restakis looked back to the first half of the 19th century, when the franchise was extended beyond the wealthy elite and when the co-operative movement was founded. This parallel is not a coincidence, since both were a response to the development of capitalism and the way it concentrated power and resources in a small number of hands.

Restakis's conclusion was that, while we did gained the right to elect our government we did not see the extension of a similar level of democratic involvement in the economic sphere. And more importantly, he argued that so long as economic power is concentrated and unresponsive, it can feed back into our democratic system and poison it. Whether we think of the ownership of media outlets by the super-rich or the ability of politicians to use their influence to buy themselves well-paid directorships we see evidence of his argument all around us.

While I'm in the business of mentioning our impressive new teaching building I should tell you that the Co-operative Group will also be using it for their conference called Wales: A Co-operative Nation this coming weekend. I'd like to link this title to that of an inaugural lecture by one of our Professors, which he called 'Entrepreneurship: Do we have a word for it in Welsh?' This title had a question mark at the end of it, and I'd like to answer what may have been a rhetorical question with the word 'co-operation'.

When I wrote my thesis some ten years ago now I concluded that the reason successive entrepreneurship action plans had not been successful in Wales was that they focused on individual self-advancement, whereas the culture of Welsh people is that we should all advance together. I found during my research that the Branson model of enterprise was viewed as getting on at the expense of others and was widely despised. I coined the term 'associative entrepreneurship' to describe the creative energy that could be released through shared enterprise for the good of the community, and I used Tower Colliery as a practical example of this associative entrepreneurship.

The destructive impact of the globalised, autocratic economy has become clear in the past few years. Both the financial crisis and the economic crisis it has produced are consequences of economic power being in too few hands. They are also products of the 'myth of the market' which states, in the face of all historical evidence, that we no longer need politicians and that the market will solve all problems, that individual self-interested behaviour will lead us all to the promised land.

We are living in an important historical moment. The last time we saw an economic collapse on this scale it took the dislocation and suffering of the 1930s and the Second World War to put the uncontrolled market back into its box and the tensions in the Eurozone are indications of the sorts of passions that result from economic failure provoked by selfishness and greed.

I understand that I am not the only person who has been re-reading Karl Polanyi's account of this period, The Great Transformation. It is said that this book is also favoured reading for Ed Miliband's economic advisors and I sincerely hope that this is the case. Polanyi's favourite economist was Robert Owen. He argued that Owen was the only commentator of the time who recognised that we are primarily social rather than economic beings and to try to understand what this means in the era of an industrialised and complex society. His very practical answer was the co-operative movement.

So in closing I would like to emphasise another important point that was made by John Restakis and that is that what we need most as co-operators is to have the confidence that our model is what the world needs right now. And we need to use that confidence to argue for our model as the alternative that people are seeking. Whether as academics, through our political parties or in the media the time is right and we should have the confidence to propose co-operation as the expression of a revitalised democracy in the economic sphere.

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