Co-operatives and the Cultural Industries

Co-operatives and the Cultural Industries was a round-table discussion organised on 1st of April 2015 by Marisol Sandoval and Jo Littler at Creative Industries Department, City University, London. Four speakers had roughly 20 minutes each to talk about co-ops, followed by time for questions, comments and discussions.

To set the scene for this discussion, it is important to consider the following:

Around 50,000 design and creative arts graduates come onto the labour market each year. They face entering the workforce as part of the new precariat, what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘New Dangerous Class’, which means they are likely to be “relegated to a bits-and-pieces life, in and out of casual flexible jobs, without being able to build an occupational career or identity” (Standing 2011).

The four speakers had very different experiences of co-operation as a business practice, but their presentations addressed these problems:

1) Unpaid work and internships are endemic, even axiomatic, in creative and cultural sectors and permanent jobs are hard to come by.
2) Although ‘entrepreneurship’ and business skills are taught as part of creative arts degrees as a matter of course, the co-operative model of business organisation is often marginalised as an option.

This event was convened by two senior lecturers to encourage a discussion of the potentials and limits of worker co-operatives as a way of organizing cultural work, but I went because I have a personal interest in these issues too: when two friends and I started a small clubwear business after graduating in the late 1990s we had a number of problems, but being a worker’s co-operative wasn’t one of them. The solidarity, sense of common purpose or what one speaker here described as ‘sweat equity’ (working your equal share despite not getting paid) that united us in a brave attempt to create and manage our own experience of working for a living was readily cemented by a legal and ethical contract, the common ownership worker’s co-operative business model, that made sense of our shared ambitions and more importantly, shared risk. There are some ideas here that could also be applicable to the kinds of grassroots projects and community organisations currently involved in Connected Communities research.

Economist started by explaining the economic context in which co-ops assert their difference from other forms of production within organised capitalism. He has been Director of Industry at the Greater London Council in the 1980s, and a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, so he knows a thing or two about the world of macro-business. He used a flipchart to explain how when production became more complex and specialised, the necessary socialisation of its workforce increased, which was how Marx understood the development of industrial capitalism. Robin then introduced the Dunbar model for the number of stable relationships that humans can comfortably maintain, which is no more than 150, making the point that labour organises itself more easily in non-complex activities. In Robin’s opinion, the Dunbar model limits a co-ops’ ability to manage really complex business operations and so capitalism became the default format as a system for organisation for mega-business, especially in our highly specialised late-modern economy in the UK. Capitalists have the ability to manage the co-ordination of complexity and combine it with hierarchical socialisation, making them able to operate effectively at economies of scale.

The first great wave of worker co-ops in the mid to late 19th century followed the Rochdale pioneers’ example, which was a model for how the proletariat could react to the development of national industrial capitalism and build resilience by organising purchasing and retail operations in small groups. He calls it “consumer co-operation of the industrial working class” (Murray 2012), they were, after all, the dispossessed workers of their age. It led to the formation of hundreds of retail co-ops, a wholesale society, factories, farms, shipping lines, insurance and banks that, if taken as a single network, was at the time the largest corporate organisation in the world. What Robin suggests that co-ops can do to take back ownership of complex economic processes or to form businesses that need to operate at a larger scale is to combine separate co-operative ‘Dunbar cells’, as the first UK Co-op movement did, to become a huge cell network.

Founded co-operative advocacy organisation AltGen to support 18-29 year olds to set up workers co-operatives. Rhiannon says she founded AltGen after applying for endless graduate jobs and unpaid internships herself without success and decided that young people could create something better if they started working together. She decided to reverse the blame for her own struggle to find work and wanted to help other young people understand that that the problem is not them, it is the economy. They are inheriting an economic reality in which they have no control over their time, no economic security, are forced into accepting low-income, poor quality and temporary jobs and are unable to accumulate any kind of capital at all. AltGen aims to help them find ways into a sustainable working future and contribute to a more stable economy through co-operation. “We need to stop fighting each other for work, especially unpaid work” she said. Putting together minds and skills to empower young graduates to take control of their own employment, AltGen can help them to understand and solve the employment crisis they face. The organisation is now looking into setting up a freelancers’ co-operative. Being employed brings rights that self-employed people don’t have, like holiday and sick pay, protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal, redundancy pay and trade unions. This next action will try and find ways to ameliorate an isolating situation that makes self-employed people more vulnerable to being treated as a disposable workforce.

Printer and pro-co-op activist  shared his own story, which in some ways was similar to Rhiannon’s. He trained as a printer but the recession in 1981 made finding a ‘proper’ job impossible. Living in London, he joined a community press organisation and started from there instead. He is now a member of Calverts, a communications design and printing co-operative, based in Bethnal Green. Founded in 1977, it is a worker co-operative with 12 members that can produce all manner of printed items from leaflets and menus to art books and multimedia products, it also creates websites and develops all kinds of interesting communication projects. Under ‘environmental initiatives’ their website mentions the company’s commitment to utilising the latest technology that reduces their impact on the environment in many ways, such as computer-to-plate technology which dispenses with film, as well as the obvious choices such as vegetable oil based inks. Siôn is also a business advisor at institutions including City University, where he advises on the nature and benefits of co-operative approaches to work and creative life. He has written about the precarious generation of creative workers on his blog suggesting that as the cultural sector has grown “workers have responded by developing agile, collaborative and creative approaches not just to work, but to the necessities of life including accommodation, leisure and social support”. He writes that despite “the primacy of individual genius and effort” that go with the territory of the creative industries and its rhetoric, collaborative practice is something that is “familiar and normal for many students and graduates”.

She is interrogating the tensions or even conflicting aims of co-operative businesses to understand the difficulties of balancing social transformation with commercial sustainability, to consider whether becoming a market entity has a depoliticising effect on their practice and to locate them within the broader history of working class movements. Law is a “key terrain” (Mulqueen 2012) in which social groups and corporate bodies are defined. Co-operatives as corporate entities were brought within the state and its legal framework when they were formally recognised as a legitimate form of business in 1852. At this time joint-stock companies, trusts and friendly societies were already in use, now a number of different legal forms could also be co-operatives. It is a ‘protected category’ in law, which means that in theory, a capitalist business cannot use the word co-operative, but in practice it is the Government’s business secretary that has the final decision on this. One thing a co-op can never be is a charity, in fact it is the opposite of a charity. Trustees may not benefit from a charity. The market has therefore become the very terrain of a co-operative’s existence in which it is possibleto see them as a category of middle-class reformism, they are also limited by their recognition by the state, something that the trade unions resisted to preserve greater freedom of organisation. It is interesting that Tara’s own experiences of self-organised and ethical work included unintentionally becoming entangled with the state idea of a Big Society, a “dubious program” (Mulqueen 2012) to expand the voluntary sector as an alternative to state-funded services. Dilemmas over principles will continue to trouble the development of a social economy – one important question being is it acceptable to survive and prosper? Community groups and budding partnerships interested in producing and selling goods need to ask themselves this question. If they are considering adopting a co-operative model, would ‘business’ as the legal form of association actually obscure their political project and social goals? Or alternatively does the co-operative model limit their ability to operate within the mainstream economy?

In my experience, the common ownership worker’s co-operative model was, of the four options listed in the Princes Trust ‘starting a business’ guide, by far the most logical choice for us as a group of friends, yet being involved in conversations about the values of co-operative business did, over time, have the effect of making our business into an ethical and political concern. Becoming a co-op inadvertently developed and promoted a political project that I hadn’t understood would be an effect of running a business and started a chain of events which has ultimately brought me here – to the Cultural Intermediation project and the Centre for Sustainable and Regional Futures (SURF).

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