A Focus on Co-operatives and Questions: Of ‘Value’ and ‘Values’

Saturday, 12th May 2012 (10.45- 4.30)
Law School, Birkbeck College, London.

R-CoMuse – Research into Co-operatives, Mutuals and Social Enterprises

An interdisciplinary and international research network.
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2012 is designated as the UN ‘Year of Co-operatives’. In the country which gave birth to ‘the co-operative movement’, there is no better time to reflect upon the factors which lay behind a renewal of interest in co-operatives and related forms of social enterprise: especially when we reflect upon the fact that co-operatives, so long associated with the Labour movement, have become adopted as part of the ‘Big Society’ agenda. What is it about them which appeals across a broad political spectrum, from being promoted as radical alternatives through to being applauded by the Coalition?
Co-operative enterprises cover a wide range of activities – from business through to housing and the delivery of services. The basic premise which connects all of these together is that a group of people come together to act in their common interest for their mutual benefit. This, however, translates into a wide range of forms and practices, within which ‘common interest’ and ‘mutual benefit’ become contested terms. For ‘the co-operative movement’ the hallmark of a co-op is that it meets, in its form and practices, the ‘Rochdale Principles’. How do these principles inform both the range of activities which are associated with co-operative enterprises, and the legal forms which have been developed (or been adopted) to carry them? And, to what extent do these forms, patterns, and practices, reflect and enhance (or inhibit) the values of co-operation? Especially, when, as was recognized by the Rochdale Pioneers, any co-operative enterprise must be economically sustainable, as well as continue to be attractive to its membership. In an environment which has, for so long, been premised upon the values of individualism, private property, and a capitalist model of investment, credit and growth, the potential in co-operative enterprise is now being re-addressed. From offering alternative, sustainable, business models, and positing different patterns of ‘ownership’, through to concerns with developing enterprises which re-engage people into more pro-active and responsible communities: what is this investment in co-operation which now seems to make it so attractive?
These questions are premised on an argument that co-operatives are not simple models – but assemblages of practices and forms, of principles and ideas. We need to develop methodological approaches which enable us to investigate co-operatives as multi-faceted entities, diagramming the operational techniques which translate the principles of co-operation into organizational forms. In this seminar we approach this thematically – taking as our entry point ‘value’ (as assets) and ‘values’ (as principles). How are these brought into relation through co-operative forms? How have tensions between them been addressed, particularly in the development of legal models? How have narratives been developed to promote and disseminate co-operative principles and values? Included in this workshop is a viewing of the 1944 short film ‘Men of Rochdale’ – an evocation of history which is being reprised in a new film commissioned by The Co-operative, and due out later this year. 1844/1944/2012 – what are co-operatives about? How do the thematic questions of value help us to investigate them?

For details contact: Nathan Moore (nathan.moore@bbk.ac.uk)


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