On Co-operators and “Divi”

The “In Focus” paragraphist of the Co-operators monthly, The Wheatshea, deplores in the March issue the fact that “Some co-operators care nothing about . . beauty and fragrance and expansion of life” which, it seems, are as nothing beside a 3s. “divi.” “What” be goes on deprecatingly “if quality is reduced or prices advanced or wages kept low or depreciations and reserve funds neglected, or stocks inflated or expenses carried forward,or educational committees thwarted, or the poor kept out of the movement ?—dazzling ‘divi’ makes amends for all.”

Why, certainly. If the Wheatsheaf writer thought to find it otherwise he is very much out of focus. What does he suppose co-operators take up their shares for?—”beauty and fragrance and expansion of life” ? Not much—not, that is, unless “beauty and fragrance and expansion of life” are secured for the individual co-operators through their dividends. They are in the business for precisely the same reason that the shareholder is in any other joint-stock concern—for what they can get out of it.

If it were asserted that 99 per cent. of co-operators were such first and foremost for dividends, it would probably be an understatement. I am not, of course, concerned to deny that “beauty and fragrance” and a few other odds and ends are tucked away in the. lumber rooms of their co-operative being. And I doubt not that upon show days the contemplation of these musty virtues and worm-eaten ideals is most grateful and comforting. But that any of these qualities enter into the effective every-day calculations of the average co-operator no one who knows the average co-operator on his every-day side will be prepared to assert.

What is the attraction held out by the average society—by every society of my knowledge—to induce outsiders to take up shares ? High dividends. What the bait in which the hook is imbedded ? Large profits. What is the virtue extolled above all other virtues by the great men of the co-operative movement like Holyoake ? Self-help and thrift and a house of your own out of the profits of the store, and so on. In the circumstances the really surprising thing to me is that anybody professing knowledge of the real inwardness of the movement should give expression to such hopelessly antiquated views as those of the “In Focus” writer.

I say hopelessly antiquated because at one time it was the correct thing to emphasize the idealistic side of the movement. But that was many moons agone. To-day co-operation is frankly a business, and the only ideal known to business is larger profits. Of course there is nothing against the “co-op” working its way to any success possible as a business, in the same way that any other capitalist concern works. The objection I raise is against the attempt of some of its apologists to cant about its moral effects as a progressive, enlightening, uplifting force as against the immoral effects of profit-mongering capitalism, while all the time they prate their societies are dangling “large profits” carrot-wise in front of the noses of the proletariat.

I suppose the soft and gentle co-operator—if he is very soft—believes that there is some special virtue in his business which relieves his “divi” of the coarse and vulgar stigma of robbery which attaches to all other forms of profit. I suppose it is inconceivable to him that his quarterly or annual “share-out” is derived from precisely that same method of exploitation of the working-class producer which he deplores on special occasions with such lachrymose lamentation. I suppose he lays the flattering unction to his soul that the mere fact of being employed in the elevating atmosphere of a co-operative store is sufficient compensation for the happy shop assistant he employs, whose conditions in other respects differ in no material degree from those of most other shop-assistants. Or is it because our co-operator has to pay in excess of outside prices for so many things of inferior quality that he thinks he has made sufficient sacrifice for the movement, and cannot be expected to pay high wages or provide better conditions, particularly when his employees are receiving as good a wage as he (the co-operator) is himself getting from his own capitalist employer.

However that may be, the outstanding fact remains that tbe co-operative movement is a business dependent for its success upon its ability to enter the capitalist arena in effective competition with capitalist, undertakings for trade. It may provide for the workers employed slightly better conditions in some respects than obtain in some other capitalist concerns. But it will do this, as capitalist Cadbury has done it, primarily because it has been shown to pay and only afterwards, and only then perhaps, for the sake of “beauty and fragrance and expansion of life.” But it will always, because it must maintain its essentially capitalist basis—there is no such thing as a Socialistic oasis in a capitalistic desert. Its dividends will always represent labour exploitation—there is no such thing as profits dissociated from robbery. And altho’ perchance it may exude a little something recognisable to its members as “beauty and fragrance and expansion of life,” there is no hope in it at all for the working-class until they have attained that level of mental development by which alone they will be able to appreciate their position and their power and give expression to that appreciation by taking over in their own interests as producers the whole of the means by which they are able to create and distribute the wealth of the world.

To that end it is merely folly to allege present day co-operative societies contribute. All they do is to bring into existence a class of petty capitalists whose interests as such, clashing with their interests as members of the working class, must tend to maintain that condition of muddled thought upon which the continued domination of the capitalist absolutely depends. For the reasons, therefore, (1) that the co-operative movement enlists its membership largely from the wage-earning class upon an anti-working class appeal; because (2) the ignorance manifested in the response is, so far as possible, maintained inside the movement; because (3) working-class ignorance is the one barrier which we as a Socialist party have to break down before we, in common with, the rest of our class, can move forward to our freedom; for briefly these three reasons we are and must always be opposed to the co-operative movement.


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