“In order to rise from its own ashes, a Phoenix first must burn.” – Octavia E. Butler

The origin story is great. In a town much like yours, on a street out of a Norman Rockwell painting, the dispossessed realized that they could pool their resources and own the very means to fulfill their needs. This is often seen as a revolutionary change in the march toward liberation. We see a small band of Davids take on a Goliath. It is easy to feel like the war has been won, but still we find the oppressive hierarchies of the past remade in our newly sewn organizational fabric. If we are to liberate our collaborative endeavors from the zombie like grasp of the past we must identify the virus, understand how it has evolved through history, and how we come upon modern day. I love the collaboration, the sharing, the communism of co-ops, and because of that love I believe we can decolonize co-ops.

A brick show sits on a corner. A bench and lamppost are also seen. Signs read "STORE" and "Toad Lane". A mural on the side of the building reads "Delicious Coop Tea."

The Cooperative Movement, as we know it today, was started in 1844 in Great Britian. The Rochdale Pioneers, a group of workers who couldn’t afford the necessities, each raised £1 and used their combined assets to open a general store.

The Rochdale Pioneers set out with a number of objectives:

  • The objects and plans of the Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit, and improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of £1 each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements:
  • The establishment of a store for the sale of provisions, clothing, etc.
  • The building, purchasing or erecting of a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.
  • To commence the manufacture of such articles as the Society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.
  • As a further benefit and security to the members of this Society, the Society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment or whose labour may be badly remunerated.
  • That as soon as practicable the Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.
  • That for the promotion of sobriety, a temperance hotel be opened in one of the Society’s houses as soon as convenient.

As you can see, the Rochdale Pioneers had some interesting ideas codified in their goals to empower themselves. Here we also see the roots of the Cooperative Movement being planted in colonialism. The idea of a co-op cannot exist without capitalism to define the property of the share holders. The documents of the co-op clearly define those that are to be the “haves” and we can infer who will be the “have-nots”. The object is then, when power is realigned to include the share holders, works in a missionary fashion to spread the economic model of small group ownership across the lands … or to colonize.

These objectives are reflected today through both the ideals of many modern cooperatives and the very founding principles of the Cooperative Movement known as the Rochdale Principles.

  1. Open, voluntary membership.
  2. Democratic governance.
  3. Limited return on equity.
  4. Surplus belongs to members.
  5. Education of members and public in cooperative principles.
  6. Cooperation between cooperatives.

These principles are the founding ideals behind most modern cooperatives. These principles were also adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1996. The principles themselves are an improvement off of the most exploitative versions of capitalism where a single industrialist consumes the commons for personal profit, but an interest group collaborating for a shared profit is also not different enough to liberate us.

Benjamin Franklin in a fire fighter cap

The history of the Cooperative Movement is full of examples of groups cooperating at the expense of others. Looking at the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin is still celebrated in the United States Cooperative Movement as a founding collaborator of co-op based efforts in insurance mutuals and Fire Departments. Cooperatives have long been economic and legal entities serving to empower colonists and protect colonies.

This history is not relegated to the USA alone though. In 1904 British colonists in India declared the Cooperative Credit Societies Act that sought to bring the economic power of the colony in a new banking system that today informs both industry and political bases in the country. The French seeing this copied the idea and enacted similar changes a few years later in Nigeria. The use of co-ops to colonize agricultural power and move economies into the systems of British and French colonialists was followed across Africa.

British India. Railroad station in Bombay

This history of co-ops is important to be aware of. As we work collaboratively on endeavors how are we complicit with colonialism? What can we do to decolonize?

I believe that collaboration, sharing, mutual aid, and working together for the common good is something that we as humans will always be doing. Solidarity is a great tool that can win new opportunities for us. For example, co-ops were able to create networks of communal aid under Franco’s fascist rule in Spain. Still, co-ops themselves can also be a tool to colonize in all the ways outlined above and probably many more that I am ignorant of still. And that’s what it all comes down to. Co-ops are existential tools we can use to make change, but we must fight the idea that co-ops are liberating by their vary nature, because at least the modern incarnation of them is steeped in a history of domination.

Co-ops can be more. Colloquially, cooperative is just a word that we can define for any of our cooperative projects. I hope you will dream bigger than the confines of just another shop. We can do better. We can decolonize co-ops.