The failure of Co-operation
The Co-operative lecturer, when discoursing on the advantages and possibilities of his subject, at trade union, temperance, and other meetings, invariably claims that it is a working-class movement, and the only movement that can solve the poverty problem and abolish capitalism. It can accomplish this, he says, by gradually extending its functions until production and distribution are entirely under its control.
Some idea of the ambitious nature of the co-operative scheme may be gathered from the paper read by Mr. Aneurin Williams at the late congress. Among other things, he said “Their policy must be to spread distributive co-operation over the whole country,” and again, “The land was the great source of raw materials and the chain of co-operation would be completed in proportion as co-operators made themselves owners of the sources of raw materials.” Of course no one doubts the possibility of their opening a co-operative store in every town, village, and hamlet in the country, or even the adequacy of their resources to “judiciously acquire,” here and there, land for building and other purposes. But such imperfect measures as these would not satisfy the mildest member of the Co-op.
Co-operators have always maintained that their principles carried to their logical conclusion would abolish the middleman or capitalist, and this claim has been responsible for a great deal of the support they have received from the workers, who, in many instances have bought their necessaries at the local stores when they could have bought them cheaper elsewhere ; simply because of the principle they believed to be involved.
If the claims of co-operators as to the possibilities of co-operation are wrong, then those who believe in them are being misled, and, while perhaps entertaining a strong desire to do something to remedy social evils, their energy and desires are wasted. For this reason it is necessary to examine their claims, and the first thing that strikes us is their inability to employ but a very small percentage of their members. Whether it was in the early days when their numbers were small, or to-day on what, in comparison is a gigantic scale, the fact remains that co-operators cannot shut themselves off from the rest of society and produce and distribute for themselves, independent of the capitalists around them. They are dependent at the very outset upon the vast majority of their members being employed in the factories and mines of the capitalist, these, of course, merely constituting the market, where the surplus value extracted from their employees is realised by the shareholders in the ordinary capitalist way.
This brings out clearly the stupidity of the notion that any section of the workers, large or small, can by co-operation, or any other method, form self-supporting communities inside capitalist society.
But quite apart from the Co-op’s dependence for its market on wage-slaves employed by capitalists in the ordinary way, co-operation is unable to expand without capital, which, notwithstanding its stereotyped phrase “working-class capital,” comes from the only class that has capital to invest.
A movement by workers which proposes to compete with, and oust capitalism from the world’s markets is foredoomed to failure, because it can only exist by copying capitalist methods. If the savings of the workers is relied upon—as capital—it is obvious that co-operation will remain insignificant in comparison with capitalism. If, on the other hand, the dominant idea is the rapid increase in bulk of the Society’s trade, the necessary capital must come from capitalists and the Society loses at once its working-class character. In short, they must either remain insignificant or become a fully capitalist concern. And the latter is precisely what has happened to the movement. Composed of men imbued with capitalist ideas of trade, and never understanding the working class position, the co-operative movement has been powerless to resist impregnation from the capitalist forces all around it ; the workers, whether employees or customers, have no control over it, and wholesale and retail alike are run on the same lines as other capitalist concerns.
The likeness is faithful in every respect ; the sordid and repulsive details of the capitalist concern are reproduced in the Co-op., and though ten thousand lecturers wrap it around with the cloak of principle, they cannot hide completely the exploitation and fraud which, finding daylight from time to time, brands the Co-op. Pharisee as well as fraud. So far as wages and conditions are concerned the Co-operative worker is no better placed than the ordinary wage-slave; he sells his energy by the day or the week, every precaution being taken to see that he parts with it in accordance with the terms of the bargain, and the terms of the bargain and the price he obtains are, on the average, sufficient to keep him fit ; there is no margin worth speaking of for luxuries or to acquire shares in the concern that exploits him.
The Co-operative congress of 1912 congratulated those societies that had adopted the minimum wage scale and “urged that the union should carry on an active campaign until the scale had been adopted throughout the movement. There had been a constantly growing agitation” said Mr. Hibberd : “for the movement to be true to its principles and to pay its employees on a footing worthy of the co-operative name.” This year Mr. Williams said that “co¬operative societies were already great employers of labour, and in wages, conditions, and hours they should be not only equal to the best competitive employers, but as far as possible they should set the pace.” From this we can only gather that so far their campaign has not been a huge success ; their wage slaves, floundering on or below the line of a bare subsistence wage, can, by no stretch of the imagination, be termed the aristocracy of labour.
A sure indication of the nature of co-operative conditions is the frequency of strikes among their workers, which, generally speaking, only take place when there is more than usual cause for dissatisfaction. When these strikes are in progress there is abundant evidence to prove that the Co-operative worker is just as poor as his fellow worker, who is not sheltered by a boss who carries on a campaign to give him a minimum wage. During the Co-operative strikes of 1913, the conference held at Swindon discussed “instances of unfair conditions of employment, of employees obtaining only one pound a week, upon which they had to maintain a wife and family. Of a young woman who was the first hand in a Co-operative drapery establishment, and who earned only nine shillings a week.” This last case leaving us to wonder what must have been the price of those who worked under her.
But it is not only in the matter of exploitation that the Co-operative Societies bear such strong resemblance to capitalist concerns ; being forced to compete with the capitalist and small shopkeeper, they must, in order to maintain their position amongst them, resort to the same methods : lying advertisements, adulteration, and all the other forms of petty cheating, otherwise they find their prices undercut and their trade diminishing. Every concern, including the Co-op., advertises “best quality and absolute purity.” But their veracity is seriously impugned and confiding members and customers are rudely shocked when they read in the daily Press :
“For being found in possession of nearly half a ton of diseased pork, some of which was being made up into sausages, the Nottingham Co-operative Society was fined £20 and costs by the local magistrate yesterday.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and the Co-op, in spite of its pious resolutions and proclamations of “cheapness with purity,” “no middlemen’s profits,” “a living wage for its workers,” etc., is no better than the rest of the capitalist thieves.
But the chain of evidence showing there is no difference or distinction between capitalist and co-operative concerns was still further lengthened by Mr. Williams at the last congress where we may imagine him in the usual pompous fashion of the capitalist delivering himself of the following:
“Cooperative societies were already great employers of labour, …. He believed that the future policy of Co-operative Societies towards labour would be more and more a policy of co-partnership.”
Co-partnership is admittedly the latest and most effective method of preventing disputes, urging the workers to the highest pitch of speed and efficiency, and at the same time reducing the wages bill. It is the latest crime against the workers ; it heaps insult on injury, insult the wage slave by calling him shareholder, while compelling him to drive his fellow-worker into the ranks of the unemployed, that a portion of the wages thus saved to the capitalist may be paid to him in the shape of dividend or bonus. But co-operators ate so deeply involved in the capitalist game that they quite seriously contemplate, without shame, this more thorough exploitation and robbery of the workers.
The principles they voice have been in the melting-pot ever since their earliest progenitors—nearly a century ago—died of slow starvation trying to live up to them. To-day they can only urge upon one section of the workers—”the well paid artisans”—to use their savings as capital to exploit the rest. For that is the real meaning of Mr. Williams’ statement:
“Co-operative housing was the next greatest field for the development of their movement and for the investment of hundreds of millions of working class capital.”
The average man will note, however, not so much the lack of principle involved in this last statement as the absurd remark, “hundreds of millions of working class capital.”
But the schemes of Co-operative dreamers be come, if anything, more preposterous and ambitious in proportion as their movement is annexed, and their principles smothered by the capitalist. Like many social reformers, their particular nostrum is a panacea for all social evil?s, even war. Mr. Williams said:
“It was for Co-operators in this country to keep in touch with Co-operators in other lands, in order to bring about better relations and find a basis for permanent peace.”
Thus the Co-operative Societies stand for co-partnership for the workers, dividends for those who find the capital, and a promise to try and find a basis for permanent peace. The same conditions, the same form of robbery and the same promises that we get already from Lever Bros , Rowntree, Furniss, and all the rest of the business-like and business as usual capitalist firms.
Co-operation is no remedy for poverty, nor does it even mitigate poverty, for even if is true that the workers, by its aid, can live more cheaply, it follows that they merely set themselves a lower standard of living, to the advantage of the capitalist, who will reduce wages an soon as he is aware that he is paying more than is necessary to keep his slaves fit for their toil.
But we shall be told that co-operation is good while competition is bad, and that we ourselves have said it. And this is true. Though when we speak of co-operation we mean that real form of co-operation where all will co-operate in the production and distribution of wealth—not for the profit of a few—but for the use of all.
The Co-operative Commonwealth is our objective, and the Co-operative Societies steal our adjectives to boom capitalism in one of its most petty and contemptible forms.