Abolish the Rochdale Principles

Co-operators go on and on about the “Rochdale Principles”. If you hear someone doing this, it might be the case that they are less than familiar with happened at Rochdale, or why Rochdale is an important part of Co-operative history. As Orion Ulrey, founding father of student co-ops at Michigan State University has argued, there are no “Rochdale principles”, in the sense of principles written down by members of the Rochdale society in the 1840s. Co-operative principles pre-date the Rochdale society, and the innovative principles attributed to Rochdale, cash trading and the dividend, are practiced by hardly any co-ops today. The Rochdale group did talk about “objects”, which included -setting up an Owenite commune, starting a temperance hotel, and taking over the state. How come those didn’t end up in the “Rochdale Principles”? What is called the Rochdale principles are principles set down by the International Co-op Alliance (ICA), first in 1937, then ’66, then ’95. Why did the ICA refer to a small group of weavers in 1840s Rochdale when writing up principles of the Co-op movement? They certainly were not the first to operate a co-op store. The Co-op store emerged out of friendly societies, with the Fenwick Weavers often being mentioned as the first experiment. By the 1830s there were more than 300 co-operative societies in the UK, and Co-operative Congresses began being held in 1831. The Rochdale 1844 Co-op wasn’t even the first co-operative store on their street – the Rochdale Friendly Co-operative Society operated a store at 15 Toad Lane from 1833-35. The reason why Rochdale was and is so central in Co-operative memory is largely attributable to the fact that it was the first of a wave of successful consumer co-ops around the UK during the 1840s and 1850s, and perhaps more importantly, that its founders as well as others from co-ops that started soon after Rochdale went on to found the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) in the 1860. The success of the CWS became deeply intertwined with the success of the UK co-operative movement as a whole, and Rochdale founders like Charles Howarth and William Cooper were central to its founding. And yet the huge majority of North American co-operators wouldn’t be able to tell you anything about that. I’ve literally never been to a Co-op presentation in North America, other than ones I’ve given myself, which mentioned the CWS. The reality is, the majority of North American cooperators believe the Rochdale society is important because in some dark meeting room in 1844, the “Co-operative Principles” were born. It’s absurd. 

The extent of this disjunction is such that I think it needs some kind of explanation, how could people be getting this so wrong – how could the reason something is so important be so ignored, and the thing that is important be so focussed on, without genuine understanding? There is something religious about this problem.

And I think I’ve figured it out. However, my explanation requires a substantial detour – warning, I’m going to discuss not only political theory, but political theology. By political theology, I mean the underlying assumptions within a political framework, assumptions which become unquestionable, so it’s as if they were sacred, although often unarticulated. Our current political theology, in my estimation, is “liberalism”. This doesn’t mean everyone on the political scale identifies as a liberal, it rather means that the assumptions of liberalism set the terms of the debate, within which different actors have substantially different opinions. According to Foucault, liberalism emerged in the 19th century as the assumption that initially and for the most part, markets should be allowed to operate, and that while governments have the right to intervene in market activity, they must justify their intervention in the name of the public good. This differs from the earlier assumptions, which were that the state had the unlimited right to intervene in market actvitiy, because everything within the state was essentially the property of the monarch. I believe that, up until approximately the 1950s, Co-operation often understood itself a genuinely alternative political theology to liberalism. Today, however, it isn’t anymore, it has been reduced to a “business model”, and the rise of a grand focus on the “Rochdale Principles” is related to this transformation. I believe that the focus on the “Rochdale Principles” is a central part of how the co-operative movement has attempted to cope with such a profound scaling back of its vision – from alternative political theology to liberalism, to alternative business model within liberalism. 

Carl Schmidt is largely credited with the development of the notion of political theology. According to Schmidt, political theology is the correspondence of the metaphysical image of the world in a time/place with the form of political organization which is recognized in that time/place as immediately appropriate, i.e. to be accepted without question.

The metaphysical image that a definite epoch forges of the world has the same structure as what the world immediately understands to be appropriate as a form of its political organization. (Political Theology, 46) 

 Schmidt talked about how the political theology of the early modern era, characterized by the planning of a “sole architect”, which could be either God or the political sovereign, had been replaced by a pervasiveness of scientific thinking, which presumes a law of nature applying without exception. It’s not surprising that Chicago school economists began to characterize the economy as natural system, one which any attempt to intervene in will compromise its internal, natural functioning, of revealing the most efficient use for everything. It has been more recently argued that the political theology of neoliberalism is divinationHuman activity in the market reveals the most efficient production of value. Co-operation, on the other hand, warns against the drive towards maximization, and instead calls for mediation, for mutual discussion, for sharing, for harmony. For example, the 1909 rules of order of the Co-operative Union of Canada specified that a condition of membership in the union was

the “conciliating the conflicts in interest of the capitalist, the worker and the purchaser, through the equitable distribution among them of the fund commonly known as Profit. (8)

The rules also insist societies prevent the “waste of labor now caused by unregulated competition”(8) (the American spelling of “labour” is actually a political statement, first adopted by the CWS, in solidarity with the fight against slavery).

If the eschaton of neoliberal market activity is innovation, the ongoing reduction in price and improvement in service, the eschaton of co-operative activity is harmony between the needs and interests of all members of society. If neoliberal theology is the radicalization of the “sole architect” metaphysics into the absent architect, the architect who can’t intervene within the bounds of time, co-operative theology moves in the other direction, it is a metaphysics of multiple architects, of ongoing deliberation, of ever repeating intervention from all corners (properly regulated of course, with a not at all autonomous governmentality).

One way that a political theology can be seen manifested in a political realm is the emergence of a corresponding utopian vision, and the story of co-operation is a story of the decline and fall of that vision, not once but twice. The first is the experiments of utopian socialism, i.e. Robert Owen’s villages of mutual co-operation, Fourier’s “Familistaires”. While it’s still possible to find references and homages to Owen and Fourier within the co-operative movement, it’s quite difficult to find people who’ve actually read anything they’ve written, or studied their projects in any level of detail. And maybe that’s because the success of the modern co-operative movement, meaning the success of “co-operatives”, was the defeat of Owen’s vision for villages of mutual co-operation. More than a dozen of these communities were set up, the most famous being New Harmony, Indiana. In Owen’s village, every aspect of social and economic life would be operated co-operatively, whereas a “co-operative” is the attempt to take a single element from that village, i.e. a store, or a factory, and operate it as a self-standing organization. This sundering of the unity of human life as one of consumption, production, socializing, etc, led to consumers’ co-operators getting into arguments with Marxists about whether it was the productive or consumptive capacity which truly defines the nature of the human being. However, the decline of Owenism as a philosophy of co-operation did lead to another utopian vision.  

The second, and for our purposes much more important, was the vision of co-operative federalism, developed by the CWS Chair T.W. Mitchell in the 1860s, which envisioned the ownership of the means of production and distribution to be all owned by workers, as consumers. Individual co-operative societies would not own factories, farms, or transportation companies themselves, but these could be purchased by wholesaling societies which could in term be set up for and owned by individual consumers’ societies. The power, and the success of this vision from the 1860s till about the 1950s is the reason why the UK co-operative movement has traditionally been central, and looked up to. If you’re wondering what people have been “looking up” to, it’s certainly not some weavers selling oats in the 1840s. At the time, having stores own a wholesaler was innovative – vertically integrated retail firms did not yet exist, and therefore store prices were high not simply because storekeepers tried to maximize profits, but because they in turn bought from wholesalers who were themselves trying to maximize profits. The CWS still exists today, although it changed its name to the Co-operative Group, and I think it’s the largest consumers’ co-operative society in the world, trading approximately 10 billion British pounds annually (excluding credit unions, and obviously excluding producers’ co-operatives and retail co-operatives owned by franchise owners rather than consumers). However, it no longer owns and operates its own factories, and it seems to have largely abandoned its former rhetoric of creating a complete and viable alternative to capitalism. 

Today an international slogan of Co-operation is “Co-ops build a better world”, which on the face of it sounds radical and transformative. But with the decline of co-operative federalism we are left without a workable plan for using co-operation to build a better world. Many co-op developers will tell you that it’s not practical to start a new project without state or foundation funding, and this expresses the difficulty of expanding the movement without access to capital. The old strategy of leveraging capital already in the movement to expand it – federalism – is now generally seen as too risky by co-ops, which act in increasingly individualistic, self-serving manners, unwilling to risk their own benefits to grow the movement. Sure there are “start up funds”, and various programs (often based in the discourse of entrepreneurial capitalism), but in general there is nothing like the willingness in co-ops to invest in shared structures with the goal of taking control of means of distribution and production, to impose harmony upon it and undo the waste caused by relentless competition and maximization.

It’s possible to give an account of the decline of radical visions of co-operation in various ways. One can point to the emergence of privately owned vertically integrated “chain stores” which presented a challenge to the efficiencies previously held exclusively by co-op federalists. One can point to the internal problems with various large co-operative wholesalers, like the CWS or the National Co-operatives in the United States, and blame particular managers or management cultures, or a lack of appropriate democratic mechanisms, or the rise of cultural individualism. One can also point to the success of areas of the co-operative movement which were traditionally much less radical, such as agricultural and retail co-ops, which are owned by small business owners rather than consumers or employees. Today of the 30 largest co-operatives in the world, only one is a workers’ co-operative, and three are consumers’ societies, whereas 10 are retail or agricultural co-ops, and the rest insurance or credit unions. It isn’t my intention to weigh the relative force of any of these causes in the decline. What matters for purposes here is that there was a decline of co-operative federalism, which sought harmony in society and global peace through the ownership of society by consumers, and that this utopian vision has not been successfully replaced by any other one.

Historically, the articulation of the “Rochdale Principles” by the ICA in 1937 should be read as part of the decline of the utopian vision held by consumers’ co-operation. The ICA was never as dominated by consumers’ societies compared to the UK co-operative movement, also in the mid 1930s the Co-operative Federalist orientation of the Co-op League of the USA was being challenged by farmers who were staunchly opposed to the socialization of their farms, which would turn them into employees. It’s in this context that Co-operators attempted to articulate a universal vision of Co-operation, one which is inclusive of all different movements calling themselves “co-operative”. By focussing on the Rochdale pioneers, these values appropriated the legacy of the UK co-operative movement, widely recognized to be the most successful, without appropriating the politics and strategy that movement developed starting in the 1860s. A special committee was entrusted with determining the extent to which the consumers’ co-operative movements were in fact, as was often repeated, based on principles “laid down in a statesmen like constitution and subsequently practice” of the Rochdale society. They found,

that the observance of
co-operative principles depends on the adoption and practice
of the first four of the seven Principles, viz.,

1.   Open Membership,

2.   Democratic Control (One Man, One Vote),

3.   Distribution of the surplus to the members in proportion
     to their transactions,

4.   Limited Interest on Capital.

In the opinion of the Committee, the remaining three
Principles, viz.,

5.   Political and Religious Neutrality,

6.   Cash Trading,

7.   Promotion of Education,

What is notably absent from the principles is the practices that made the UK co-operative movement wildly successful, and ultimate the historical explanation as to why Rochdale is seen as important at all – the development of the Co-operative Wholesale Society in the 1860s. There is nothing here about co-operative federalism, and therefore this account of consumers’ co-operation is one which is anaesthetized of the radical elements of consumers’ co-operation which threatened other elements of the co-operative movement (especially agricultural co-operatives).

In 1966 a revision eliminated neutrality, and added a provision for public education, as well as “Co-operation amongst Co-operatives”, perhaps an attempt at reviving a sense of federalism in the movement. The 1995 revision ads “concern for community”, and further defines “co-operation amongst Co-operatives” as the participation in common structures to better meet the needs of members. Because this principle doesn’t define the difference between educational and wholesaling federations, however, co-ops can claim to be meeting this principle simply by belonging to an educational and advocacy federation. Also, many co-operators believe that having their co-op patronize other co-ops (i.e. banking with a credit union) is an example of “co-operation amongst co-operatives”, possibly because they rarely read more about the principles than the list itself.

The ICA Principles, technically called the ICA “Statement on the Co-operative Identity”, commonly referred to as the “Rochdale Principles” (many co-operators somehow believe that the current version, developed in 1995, was actually developed by the Weavers in the 1840s), serves as the pat answer to the questions “What is a co-op?” and “What makes your org a Co-op?”. They serve to answer this question quickly and efficiently, before anyone has a chance to reflect on whether what is ever called the “Co-operative Movement” is going anywhere, or moving in a coherent organized way at all (it is not). They serve as a substitute for a political theology, harmony, which few of them any longer believe in. It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t an activist to believe in a metaphysical image of the world which conflicts with the dominant one – it was easier in the 19th century because (neo) liberalism was not as entrenched, there was still a sense of possibility that co-operation rather than competition might become the organizing principle of society.

The call to “Abolish the Rochdale Principles” is not a call for Co-operators to stop practicing the principles stated in any version of the ICA/Rochdale principles. Rather, it is a call to co-operators to abandon the simple answer “what is co-operation” that these principles give, and to renew a sense of openness to the future which has been closed off. The making-eternal of principles provides only the simulation of a political theology, one produced by compromise rather than genuine metaphysical insight. The co-operative movement’s period of intense strength and growth it did not need a universally valid set of “Rochdale Principles”, it was rather characterized by a multiplicity of co-op movements struggling to replace capitalism, and sometimes in tension with each other. To create workable, believable visions for a world beyond liberalism, co-operators need to develop a dynamic relationship with principles, revive an interest in harmony as an alternative to neo-liberalism’s political theology of divination, and question the dominance in the Co-operative movement of the enormous organizations which are not owned by human beings.

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