Sunday 4 May 2014

On Co-op, modern management and mutualism

One of the most difficult questions in organising capitalism is what types of management would be best for society. The conventional answer is that one involving citizens and communities to a large degree in decision making also benefit them most. This ‘empowerment’ ideology dominates much of the current discourse on economic equality (austerity driven by narrow shareholder values versus public service largesse underpinned by public interests). 

Yet the crisis at the Co-op clearly undermines this simple binary narrative. As the former (Labour) City Minister Myners has expressed his desperation with existing governance structures at the Co-op (loosely based on mutualism) that make the company close to ‘ungovernable’ due to the cacophony of voices on its management board, the Co-op should be a paragon of community virtue if the conventional narrative is anything to go by. 

The Observer today reports, however, that this does not even come close to the truth. Instead of considering community interests during its latest offloading of company segments to the wider market, those organising the sale of Co-op farms at the Co-op management board have made it clear that they are not interested in community buy outs. They, so The Observer reports, are keen to see a hedge fund or a Chinese investor to take over the farms, including the 44,000 acres of land attached. 

If this was a public service, the outcry on the left would be noisy and sustained. After all, the farms have been financed by Co-op members throughout their existence and their profits have been re-invested rather than creamed off by the members in line with the principles of mutualism, the Co-ops founding tenet. Now, the board is likely to offload those very farms to the very financial behemoths they were supposed to resist. 

What does it tell us about the relationship between management and community interests? It appears that there is little direct linkage between how effectively community interests can be served through specific management structures, in particular through mutualism. As the Co-op fights for its survival, modern highly leveraged capitalism appears to be the only guide for action. 

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