Head of the RSA US Alexa Clay talks to Nathan Schneider about how co-operatives could democratise work and cultivate grassroots agency and power
Alexa Clay: Can co-operatives form part of the solution to some of the biggest threats of our time?
Nathan Schneider: Co-ops have often emerged in moments of crisis, especially when broader social contracts are in flux. But the best kind of change comes when people experience their own power, and co-ops can be vital tools for doing that. That’s how the Rochdale Pioneers in England in 1844 used their co-op to form the basis of a nationwide alternative to industrial capitalism. That’s how the US Populists later that century built an agricultural economy that could stand up to urban elites. Today’s generation of co-ops have put the crises of inequality and climate at the heart of their work. They have used tech co-ops to show that a gig economy doesn’t need to be based on exploitation; they’ve helped erode the addiction to fossil fuels by creating a market for renewables when big energy companies wouldn’t. This is a long tradition where business and values can go hand-in-hand.
Clay: What are the most common misunderstandings about the co-operative movement?
Schneider: The biggest misconception is that you cannot have co-operatives at scale. People often think of co-ops in terms of a small, local grocery store or a housing collective. But in Italy, the two largest grocery chains are co-ops. In the US, we have co-ops that run nuclear power plants, and there’s a $130 billion co-operative bank down the road from me in Colorado. Some of the poorest cities spend huge amounts of money to lure investor-owned companies to come and extract value from their people. That kind of money could go a lot further invested in powerful, locally rooted co-operative businesses. A growing number of communities are recognising this.
Clay: You are an advocate for the campaign to encourage Twitter users to take collective ownership of the platform. Can co-operative structures be applied in the tech sector?
Schneider: I’m part of a global community working to bring the co-op legacy into tech. This is an opportunity for a real sharing economy, which shares the value of labour fairly and protects people’s personal data. For a long time this has sounded a bit utopian, and ran counter to the venture capital model that is dominant. But now companies like Uber and Airbnb are trying to share equity with their users. Major tech investors are starting to take co-ops seriously. Economic democracy could help to address some of the core problems of accountability and perverse incentives that have been plaguing the big platforms.
Clay: Was co-operative thinking dismissed in the 20th century because it was perceived as too ‘socialist’?
Schneider: In the US, co-ops largely went underground after the Second World War. Big brands like Sunkist and Land O’Lakes didn’t advertise that they were co‑ops. But in the wake of the 2008 crisis, more people are looking for alternatives to corporate capitalism, resulting in some co-ops coming out of the woodwork. Lately, the left has taken up co-ops in a big way but, importantly, some of the largest and most powerful operate in right-leaning rural areas. The co-operative movement is something we can reunite around in polarised times.
Nathan Schneider is a journalist and assistant professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. His most recent book is Everything for Everyone: The Radical Tradition that is Shaping the Next Economy