The Co-operative Movement in the Next 100 Years: What are the Opportunities? The Challenges?

Ian MacPhersonIan MacPherson
Professor Emeritus of History
Co-director, the National Hub
The Canadian Social Economy Research Partnerships
The University of Victoria

[NOTE that Ian MacPherson passed away in 2013.  See the ICA tribute to him, here: ]

Speech to
Worker Co-operatives and Sustainable Development
Canadian Worker Co-op Federation
October 2010

When Hazel Corcoran asked me to speak at this year’s meeting of the Federation, I was particularly honoured. One of my most pleasant co-op memories is the founding convention of the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation (CWCF) at Antigonish, Nova Scotia in April 1991. At that time, I was President of the Canadian Co-operative Association and I like to think that in that capacity I played a useful if modest role in helping make it possible. Most of all, though, I look back at that conference for its excitement, the kind of enthusiasm that often accompanies beginnings and formative periods within the co-operative movement.

I also recall it for the depth of engagement by so many leaders within the worker co-op movement, a kind of “coming out party” for them and for some fellow travellers and sympathizers, particularly from the co-operative housing movement. Many of them are here today. I congratulate them for what they have done for CWCF, but I would also like to acknowledge their remarkable contribution to the broadening, deepening and challenging of the national movement over the last twenty or so years. I won’t try to name them – for fear of forgetting some (especially those not here to jog my ageing memory) – but I want to thank them for contributing so much to the conscience of the Canadian movement; for pointing out many of the things it should be doing; and for paying the price in trying to do them. Long may you continue to do so; long may you build.

I am confident you will. I have some reason to believe that several of you suffer from what is called in our house “the co-op disease”. Like a raging fever, it won’t let go of you. Like an addiction, it has to be fed through a daily “fix”. It is like an epidemic in that you unconsciously spread it wherever you go. It is like a pain in the neck in that it keeps you awake or it awakens you at night. And those are only the symptoms. The prognosis is that it is incurable. You do it until you can’t do it any more.

However, all that doom lifts when you see a co-operative good happening, people empowered, communities enriched, and issues addressed. The price is worth the pain and frustrations.

Then the other shoe dropped. Hazel told me my assignment was to look at the next century. That is not easy. I’m an historian by inclination and training. I like rear view mirrors. They are nice contained little screens. If you miss something, it doesn’t really matter. In a way, you are looking at what you have already seen, so it doesn’t surprise, though it may bother, depress or shock, and sometimes, it might even make you smile.

Windshields are something else. They provide more complex and dangerous vistas. What you may miss – the deer lurking behind bushes, the young uniformed woman with a speed gun standing behind a tree, the young boy on a skateboard careening out of control on a hedged driveway – all of these (and more) could have major consequences, ruin your day, change your life.

It is easier, though not simple, to deal with the past. You know approximately at least what the story was; you have some idea as to what shaped it; and you can pronounce on it with some certainty – or at least easily delude yourself into thinking that doing so is possible.

So CWCF asking me to deal with the future is like asking me to comment on new video games, reality shows, cricket, some modern poetry, or hip hop. I can hazard guesses as to what is happening but essentially it is all beyond my ken and getting more so. Therefore, I don’t look forward to the final report card on this talk when it is delivered in 2110, wherever that might occur: Moose Jaw, Burlington, Chicoutimi, Tatamagouche or the Elysian Fields. I think I will just conveniently plan to be somewhere else.

So, you will understand why I cheat a little and turn to history as I try to respond to Hazel’s request, not because history repeats itself – it rarely does – but looking backward can suggest trends that may reasonably be assumed will continue into the future, maybe even for 100 years.

I start with reflecting on the co-operative realities of 100 years ago. At that time, the International Co-operative Alliance, though it had been in existence for some fifteen years, represented co-operatives with only about 7,000,000 members – less than half the current membership of the Canadian movement today. That number is somewhat misleading because there were many co-operatives around the world that did not belong to the ICA in 1910, but the essential point is that the self-conscious movement was small and highly concentrated in a few countries, mostly in Europe – though the movement in India was growing quickly. It is important to note, however, that the worker co-op movement was one of the original prominent groups within international Co-operation, though its subsequent impact has not been as great as observers a century ago would have anticipated. I will come back to that point later.

Today, the ICA represents co-operatives in 180 countries; they have one billion members. The United Nations estimates that three billion people – half the world’s population – receives at least one key service through co-operatives. By any measure, and considering the uneven support the movement has received in most countries over the decades, not to mention setbacks it has received through no fault of its own, it is remarkable growth. It is not a movement that is an after-thought in history, a curiosity that emerges when real businesses can’t be done by real business people; nor is it a passé form of community development or a relic from some quaint past, probably grandma’s – all attitudes one can find readily enough in the world around us, including surprisingly some people in some social economy circles.

As one looks at that growth, two facts become immediately obvious. The first is that, over the last century, the formally organized movement has spread from its original European bases to include most countries around the globe. That means that today and in the future the co-operative world is, and will become even more so, a truly global movement. That, I submit will be a positive situation for the worker co-operative movement for at least four reasons. Firstly, the adaptability of the movement in an era of business fluctuations in which there are expanded opportunities for flexible and small businesses, augurs well for the development of worker co-operatives. Secondly, because worker co-ops can call on significant resources of social capital (the power created by social networks), they can be developed in areas where financial resources are difficult to secure; they are an under-utilized form of economic development that can contribute significantly to social stability. The capacity of worker co-operatives to withstand adversity and to survive is increasingly well documented. Third, worker co-operatives can be readily adopted within different cultures and in countries at different stages of economic development around the world; they are a natural and universal form of economic development. Fourth, I expect that there will be opportunities for partnership among worker co-operatives in various countries. Why not? Why should it not be possible for two co-operatives with complementary interests to work together, in the process, for example, for shortening the supply chain? You can already see some of this in the various roles that co-operatives play within the development of Fair Trade.

The second fact that is obvious from the growth of the last 100 years is that the variety of co-operatives has increased substantially. In 1910 there were four well-established kinds of co-operatives – consumer, financial, agricultural and worker – though housing and fishing co-operatives were becoming important, and there was considerable discussion about what we would call health co-operatives. In 2010, there are about 300 different kinds of co-operatives. The movement shows a remarkable capacity to be rediscovered and used in new and different ways, so much so that it is challenging to grasp its over-all contributions and capacities, even for those who are deeply steeped in parts of it.

Moreover, if, as many within international co-operative circles suggest, we should rethink how we categorize co-operatives and divide them into two broad kinds – the co-operatives that are owned by the consumers of goods and services and those that are owned by the producers of them – the future is particularly bright. That approach would help to avoid the complexities of trying to categorize the many co-operatives that bridge one or more kinds of activities. Inevitably, the approach we use now leads to arbitrary categorizations that hide key aspects of what many co-operatives do and blurs the distinctive characteristics and needs of the various kinds of co-ops. In particular, and perhaps more importantly, it undervalues the rich possibilities that can be achieved through co-operative entrepreneurship effectively and prudently applied.

Dividing co-operatives into consuming and producing categories could lead to important legislative and regulatory changes, as well as to a fuller appreciation of the specific needs of producer co-operatives, including what we call worker co-operatives. It could help draw attention to the problems of production in an age of declining resources, arguably a distortion brought about by more than a century of conspicuous and unsustainable consumption, at least among some people in some countries.

One hundred years ago, the world, particularly the North Atlantic portion of it, was in the process of being torn asunder by fierce ideological debates. It was, as the historians Karl Dietrich Bracher and John Schwartzmantel liked to call it “The Age of Ideologies” or what Eric Hobsbawn has labelled “The Age of Extremes“, a time when much of the world was convulsed over the various ideological struggles among Marxists, Liberals, different types of Conservatives, Social Democrats, anarchists and nihilists. It formed the backdrop for the disintegration of several empires, many – though not all – centred in Europe. Those struggles helped make the twentieth century the worst in human history; they contributed, directly and indirectly, to the death of more than 100 million people. As a species, we have much to regret over what we have done during the last 100 years. The ideological struggles – and the self-interest they masked – exacted an impossibly and unacceptably high toll.

I would argue that, despite the growth that has been achieved, the co-operative movement was, in significant part, a casualty of those ideological struggles. It endured a lot of collateral damage, and perhaps the worker co-operative movement suffered the most – one reason why it did not grow as fast as most observers a century ago would have anticipated. The worker co-op movement emerged within the economic, social, and political ferment associated with the rise of industrial societies from the 1840s onward. First promoted during the 1848 Revolutions and given widespread publicity during the Paris commune of 1870-71, the worker co-operative movement became an important weapon for many within the working class by the later nineteenth century. It was a concrete example of how working people could apply the idea of the labour theory of value – the concept that what created value and what should primarily be rewarded – was the work that went into creating a product or service. It echoed the work of David Ricardo and seemed to indicate affinities with Karl Marx whose ideological framework depended significantly on that theory. That idea conflicted directly with the emerging ideas of shareholder value, the pervasive assumption of our time, the mantra against which everything – from the sale of potash to, increasingly, the future provision of medical services – should be measured.

For better and worse, the worker co-operative movement in many countries, therefore, was caught up in debates over the best ways to organize the economy. Since many of its leaders also showed sympathy for trades unionism and not a few were attracted to Marxist and Social Democratic parties, the movement, to its great cost, became associated in the popular mind with them. In fact, many leaders of worker co-ops were drawn into trade union struggles or political activism, which then became their first. It was rarely a beneficial relationship. Unfortunately, too, once these parallel movements gained influence, they tended, even though, having promised solidarity, seldom fostered seriously the development of worker co-operatives; in the end, they were primarily interested in mobilizing the sentiments that motivated worker co-operatives.

At the same time, because of the associations, real and imagined, other political forces could readily ignore worker co-operatives as they proclaimed guilt by association. It was not a situation that could readily assure sound growth for the movement. It was not a good deal – and besides it tended to erode the distinctive qualities the movement possessed.

I believe that the worker co-operative movement, like the co-operative movement generally, has its own roots and perspectives that need to be understood and nourished and that it can be supported by many kinds of political parties – as long as they respect the integrity of the movement. Above all, I believe that the movement should sustain its own brand of independent development, which of course, does not mean that it should remain aloof from key issues of the day, especially issues that are important for the movement’s development. Co-operators do not do not live sheltered lives in cloistered greenhouses.

Further, I believe that the worker co-operative movement has an internal history that has survived the tumult and shouting of the Age of Ideologies. It is a theme I started to write about some time ago but got diverted by the pressures that too often contaminate a life; I hope to return to it shortly in some future writing projects, hopefully within the next few months.

If I am right, then the worker co-op movement is at an interesting point in its history. I think the limiting of ideological possibilities in our own time – part of the “shallowing” of our public discourse – can ironically be valuable for the development of worker co-operatives. They are not now automatically misrepresented within the kind of ideological warfare that dominated much of the last 120 years. Even some mainstream economists are prepared to take them seriously, as the forty-year debate over labour-managed firms demonstrates. Of course, being economists they have not reached a single or final conclusion on the nature and viability of the movement, but the debate is nevertheless important. We are fortunate in having one of its foremost scholars on worker-managed firms here in British Columbia, in Gregory Dow of the Economics Department at Simon Fraser. His work should be more deeply engaged within the worker co-op movement in our country.

That debate among economists should be seen as part of another trend from the past, one that shapes much of the present and will doubtless continue to affect the future. It is the widespread tendency towards idealizing the values, practices and management styles of capitalist firms. It reached is height – its latest golden age – with the collapse of the centrally planned economies of Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and the subsequent shifts within China. Twenty years ago, many people came to believe that the victory of capitalism had been achieved and all that was necessary was the full and free functioning of the market to resolve all the economic and social issues humanity faced. If I prosper then everyone does well. My duty is to grab as much as I can. The capacity for self-delusion, as always, is one of the most remarkable and abiding of human characteristics.

As anyone who reviewed even briefly the experiences of the industrializing world in the nineteenth century could have pointed out, it was a naive and dangerous assumption, leading inevitably to widening, unfair, and poisonous distributions of wealth, chicanery in the financial systems, rapid deterioration in the wellness of communities being passed by, expanding migrations of desperate people, and ineffectual government responses. 2010, in this respect, is much like 1900 or 1890. It may be seen as one of the rare examples in which history does repeat itself. The cumulative impact of this transition is far greater than charity or the enterprise of people seeking to carve profits out of social problems can resolve. It is a wonderful opportunity for co-operatives, for demonstrating the importance and appropriateness of co-operative structures, values and principles.

I really don’t think I have to dwell long on the specific possibilities or the obstacles, as commonly perceived. Your conference is full of discussions about opportunities. I would say a few stand out in my mind:

  • there are numerous communities suffering from the economic shifts of our time in which niche possibilities for worker co-ops could be developed;
  • there is a growing abundance of well-trained young people looking for employment that is financially and personally rewarding – the kinds of people who would do well in worker co-ops, if they only knew about them;
  • there is a growing need for social co-operatives in which worker co-ops can meet a broad spectrum of needs of individuals and communities; and
  • the worker co-op model is especially adaptable in the emerging world of technology and communications, the expanded and more responsible production and distribution of food, the provision of better transportation systems, and the more sustainable economic development of communities.

As for obstacles, again many can readily be found within your programme. They include, for example:

  • the search for appropriate and replicable funding systems;
  • increased recognition and support from governments;
  • learning about effective governance within the practice of mutuality;
  • enhanced educational and training programmes; and
  • increasing the store of accessible, reliable and useful knowledge.

I wish to dwell briefly on that last point. With very limited success, at least in British Columbia and, more generally, in Canada, but with much more success elsewhere, I have spent most of the last decade trying to develop the field of Co-operative Studies, a genuinely interdisciplinary, international enquiry into the nature and experiences of co-operatives and a deepening consideration of co-operative thought. I believed, and still believe, that the foremost challenges for the movement and its constituent parts is the development of expanding resources bases on co-operatives, easily accessed and drawing upon the best in research into co-operatives – by academic and other researchers as well as by practitioners willing to share their experiences. The objective was to create The Co-operative Learning Centre, an on-line, multi-media, multi-site resource that would bring together many researchers, activists, and organisations to develop the kind of resources base the international movement desperately needs.

One example of the kind of research that others and I were trying to do can be seen in the book, Effective Practices in Starting Co-ops: The Voice of Co-op Developers. Edited by Joy Emmanuel and Lyn Cayo, it features the reflections of some twenty experienced developers, many of them in this room. I commend it to you. I regret that a subsequent volume, reflecting the experiences of new developers has not been completed and, in fact, that the basic idea of developing several volumes of information examining the courses of development within co-operatives, including large and “mature” co-operatives has apparently fallen by the wayside. I hope someday that particular project can be revived. The co-operative movement is, first and foremost, a movement of ideas though it easily – too easily – becomes focused on, and absorbed by, immediate, practical issues.


Some thirty-six years ago, I interviewed Harry Fowler. He lived with his wife Dorothy, also a tireless contributor to the movement, in Abbotsford. They resided in one of the first continuing housing co-operatives in Canada; in fact, at that time it seemed almost like a retirement home for old co-operators, so many lived there.

I suspect not many here would recognize Harry’s name today, because people within the Canadian co-operative movement are not noted for their deep memories of the movement. In the generation two before mine – one that I have elsewhere called “a most remarkable generation” for what it dreamed and did – he was perhaps its most important and effective leader. He was known as a builder, a man of vision, a person of ideas. He played major roles in establishing the Co-operative Refinery, Co-operative Implements, Federated Co-operatives, Co-op Fisheries in Saskatchewan, the Funeral Co-op Association, the Medical Co-op in Regina, Co-op Trust, the Saskatchewan Co-op Credit Society, the Canadian Co-op Credit Society, and various local co-ops and credit unions. He was bubbling with new ideas, so much so that one person told me: “if you haven’t heard him advance his latest idea, you haven’t talked to him in the last five minutes.” He fought almost every battle there was in building the movement in Saskatchewan and across Canada from the early 1930s through to the 1970s. He stayed the course. He espoused a remarkable set of values and he lived them – the highest compliment I can pay another person.

And so, I was intrigued to ask him what were the greatest obstacles he had faced in his career. His answer (slightly paraphrased), was the following: “It wasn’t the banks, the competition, or the government: it was my fellow co-operators who refused to see the possibilities or grasp the opportunities, who looked too much at their own ground and not enough at the horizon.” It was an answer that, at the time I put down to the crankiness of old age.

As I approach Harry’s age, I am less convinced that he was driven by the crankiness that stems from creaking joints, deteriorating mental abilities, the incremental loss from the small circle of genuine friends we are fortunate to have, the despondencies of isolation and the frustration of being assigned to the compost heap. As I listened recently to the interview (on my reel-to-reel tape recorder), I hear more wistfulness than anger. He was simply saying that the greatest obstacles to the movement’s development could be found in our mirrors. They are the tendencies within us all to look for personal advantage and limited institutional benefit at the cost of achieving much more. Or, as some in then nineteenth century would have said, our failures, our main obstacles, stem from not having learned well enough the lessons and skills of associative intelligence.

For me, the world is alive for co-operative opportunities; in fact, on a level not seen for some 50 or 60 years. And, as in the past, the only serious obstacle is within us. As usual, Harry was “right on”.