As many of you who occasionally read my blog know, I recently went to the House of Commons to hear a motion about the creation of a special committee to look into what role the federal government should take in helping co-operatives. Yesterday, I went to see the committee in session in downtown Ottawa, and I aim to write about the proceedings of yesterday's meeting in a wider context around the issues that co-operatives are facing.
Again, I will reiterate the fact that I recently started working in the co-operative sector for an amazing organisation called the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation. In the past eight months (since I was first properly introduced to co-operatives while at Occupy Ottawa) I have learned an amazing amount about what co-operatives are and how they can ameliorate environmental, social, and economic problems, all of which play into political discourse. In this blog post, I'm going to talk about the historical trajectory of the movement, including the current political climate and what impact it will have on the sector in the short term and in the long term.
The co-operative was an alternative social and economic relationship, forged during the Industrial Revolution in England. Co-operatives allowed people who had little access to resources to stand up against the bourgeoisie - the class of wealthy industrialists who owned the factories, the stores, the housing, the fields, the media, and who thus dictated social and economic life. Over the course of the nineteenth century, co-operatives grew in Britain, and the model spread around the world by the turn of the twentieth century. In Canada, co-operatives sprouted all across the country, notably around agriculture. Some of the oldest still in operation today include: the Canadian University Press (since 1938), The Co-operators (since 1945), Desjardins (since 1900), and the Guelph Campus Co-op (since 1913). The co-operative movement has remained strong, but Canadian co-operatives are unique in the global movement. Firstly, many co-operatives are not integrated with one another. A lot of this comes down to the fact that these enterprises are often geographically far away from one another (many co-operatives exist in the most remote of communities), that the movement is rather fragmented by language, and that regional co-operative associations tend to be more closely connected to communities than larger federated structures.
This lack of a united co-operative front is exacerbated by the same issue that co-operatives experience around the world. Hegemony in a capitalist society means that the elite have economic, social, and legal mechanisms which reinforce the status quo by maintaining order. The co-operative movement is Canada is already fragmented, meaning that it suffers from a relative inability to
articulate a complex series of ideas in simple, easy-to-understand ways. This is amplified significantly when media outlets are run by the elite for the elite. Despite the fact that new media have emerged in the past two decades, effectively democratising discourse, the general public still views traditional news sources like television newscasts and daily newspapers as "trusted" media. This reality produces mammoth problems for those who are trying to articulate alternatives.
Let's briefly look at some examples. Bell owns CTV. Rogers owns CityTV and Omni. Shaw owns Global. This leaves the CBC, which the government is currently slashing, as the only national news media that is not in fact owned by a corporation. While this trend is certainly true in television, it is most certainly mirrored with large radio stations as well as newspapers.
The reason why I have gone to great length to describe this reality is because it shapes the potentialities that the co-operative sector can in fact take. Co-ops, which pose a threat to the idea of recklessness, greed, and exploitation, pose a threat to large corporations and thus pose a threat to media outlets. The hegemony to which I earlier alluded is rampant in our modern society, acting as a malicious force that keeps alternative viewpoints from gaining traction and ultimately being implemented on a large scale.
For the most part, the Special Committee on Co-operatives that is currently in session this summer is exploring not whether co-operatives are useful, but whether or not they should promoted. This discourse played itself out very interestingly during the session I attended yesterday, and I will now go on to comment on this. Co-operatives have largely been supported by people from across the political spectrum because they serve to meet people's social and economic needs. As such, co-operatives have managed to remain (particularly in Canada) a very non-partisan issue. One of the comments that was made at the meeting yesterday (from an NDP committee member) was that co-ops unite us all, but that the Conservatives are turning co-operatives into a political issue. This is being done both with the policy changes themselves and with the characteristic lack of transparency.
Largely, it seems that the division on the committee is that the government feels that co-operatives are doing well for themselves and that they should not receive any supports from the state. The opposition, however, do not characterise the current landscape as a level playing field, and this is of course for a variety of reasons. Co-operatives often don't get much media exposure because they pose a threat to the status quo. Additionally, they make up a significantly smaller part of the volume of the market, meaning that they are a minority. They can sometimes struggle to gain access to capital, and they are often not taken seriously by potential investors. They usually have flatter organisational structures without public relations departments, making it difficult for them to be heard above the white noise. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they are not part of general knowledge on economics and society, likely because they are not explained in public schools.
For the government, acknowledging these problems could mean taking on a position where they might have to provide social, economic, and political support for co-operatives. Given that the Conservatives have repeatedly articulated their "economy first" neoliberal agenda, it seems unlikely that they would want to invest in a sector of the economy that shares growth fairly. Conservative members of the committee generally spent most of their questioning time asking relatively mundane questions about the functioning or profitability of co-ops, mostly to illustrate that existing co-operatives seem to be healthy. Additionally, the argument was advanced that the purpose of investing in co-operatives should be solely to make markets more competitive, anything else is "just ideology". All this, of course, was to reinforce that the government should have a "smaller footprint" on the sector (this coming from several government agencies).
The opposition, however, used their time to ask pointed questions of the witnesses, trying to understand broader ideas around the co-operative sector. Moreover, the question was repeatedly asked why the witnesses thought that the government was cutting a programme that was both so effective and so inexpensive. Witnesses answered saying that the cuts were part of austerity or that they were ideological, but either way suggesting that the cuts were a poor decision and that the sector is in need of government support. Perhaps most interestingly, a witness stated that it's rather strange that governments around the world are using taxpayer money to bail out failing corporations while they hold out on co-operatives. The question of whether or not the sector needed monetary support was addressed by every witness, though the best response was that "co-operatives don't need favours, we need fairness".
Ultimately, it seems that the lines are drawn. Conservative committee members, who are meeting during their normal summer break, are unhappy with spending time in committee. Many seemed unprepared and they were often not even paying much attention. The chair of the committee, a Conservative, was perhaps the most disengaged from the process. He also abused his position as chair to silence Mauril Bélanger when he attempted to engage in points of process (notably the sharing of communiqué from the Canadian Co-op Association with the full committee). The aloofness of the government, however, was very much a political position - failing to be transparent and failing to take interest both spoke volumes about the Conservative position.
With that in mind, I'd like to very briefly talk about politicisation. When I heard Wayne Marston comment about politicisation, I was worried that this would be divisive and could harm the co-operative movement. But upon further reflection, it seems that making it a political issue could have serious benefits, such as closer liaising with governments, more awareness on the part of the public, and a stronger sense of solidarity. At this point, it is incredibly unclear if politicisation will be positive, negative, or both. Additionally, it's also uncertain if it could prove to be more problematic in the short term, but pay off later, or vice versa. Regardless, I look forward to seeing and hearing more about this from colleagues, from the public, from the media, and from the special committee.