Political Neutrality and the Cooperative Movement: An Interview with Carl Ratner

By Jonathan Jenner

Carl Ratner is an adjunct social psychologist at the Autonomous University of Morelos in Morelos, Mexico, the director of the Institute for Cultural Research and Education, and the author of several books, including The Politics of Cooperation and Co-ops, and Cooperation, Community, and Co-Ops in a Global Era. He’s been both an active and critical member of cooperatives, and the cooperative movement, for many years.  CPE staff economist Jonathan Jenner interviewed Carl recently about the political position of the cooperative movement today, and what we can do about it.

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Jonathan Donald Jenner: A central claim in your new book is that cooperatives have bought into the idea of political neutrality, which has made cooperatives fairly conservative with respect to taking on the big problems of capitalism. Where did this position come from, and how did it develop?

Carl Ratner: It was foreign to the origins of the co-op movement. The father of the movement, Robert Owen, was a socialist. He coined the word “socialism.” He also was a union organizer. Similarly, the founders of the Rochdale Co-op were political activists. Early co-op members were largely socialists. Political neutrality seems to have been introduced by the International Cooperative Alliance. In my view, it reflects the conservativism of the cooperative philosophy. This philosophy seeks social change from a bottom-up strategy of founding small, local co-op enterprises. These are to proliferate and grow, encompassing ever more people. There is no direct attack on the system itself, no attempt to change existing social institutions. There is no engagement with them, only burrowing away in local, independent co-op enterprises.

JDJ: How can we see this trend in the cooperative movement today?

CR: Co-ops refrain from political movements. They are absent from the peace and justice movement, anti-war movement, anti-neoliberal movement, and even the environmental movement. There is no cooperative representation in any of these movements. Individual co-op members participate, but co-op institutions do not dispatch any of their spokespeople to represent them in these movements. Nor does the co-op movement support political candidates. Leading associations do lobby for specific bills that address co-op issues, e.g., tax policies regarding co-ops, or budgeting state agencies to support co-ops. But nothing outside that.

JDJ: Why is ‘neutrality’ a flawed concept, and why is it damaging to the cooperative movement?

CR: Because cooperation is not an isolated concept or practice. It cannot be realized amidst antagonistic forces from the society at large. Class societies — including those that call themselves socialist — are fundamentally anti-cooperative since classes have antagonistic interests, and the dominant class opposes cooperative solidarity within the lower classes (because it threatens their power). Consequently, cooperation requires challenging the existing social structure. It must challenge the dominant ideology of individualism for example, which opposes cooperation. By refraining from this kind of challenge, the co-op movement allows the anti-cooperative status quo to persist and to impede cooperation. In addition, the co-op movement needs to combat anti-cooperative forces within the movement. It needs to sharpen its critique of these forces by seeing their mundane manifestations in society at large. Ignoring all of this blinds cooperators to their own individualism.

JDJ: Do we see differences in political alignment in different kinds of co-ops – worker cooperatives, consumer cooperatives, credit unions, farmer cooperatives, housing co-ops?

CR: I think the differences are small. None of the co-op sectors is politically engaged. Worker co-ops express more sympathy for social movements than the other sectors do. However, they maintain the same institutional insularity of the others. Where do you see any co-ops opposing free trade deals such as TPP, that transfer global and national decision making to a handful of multinational corporations, all of which directly oppose cooperation and prevent co-ops from developing broad policies that practice decision-making by co-ops. TPP would make it illegal for co-ops to label food products they sell. Yet co-op institutions never oppose TPP.

JDJ: Ideally, how should cooperatives position themselves with respect to capitalist hegemony (the capitalist order), and with other radical groups?

CR: They need to first recognize the opposition between class, society, and cooperation. They need to level cooperative critiques against capitalism. They need to send representatives to challenge capitalist institutions and ideology. They need to leave their comfort zone within co-op enclaves and engage in political struggle. Co-ops believe that social change occurs incrementally, individually, through proliferating co-ops. They do not believe in challenging the system outside the co-op domain. This is completely short sighted. They naively believe that capitalists will ignore them even when they begin to draw customers and resources and political policies away from capitalist enterprises and associations. They ignore the fact that capitalists overthrow entire governments which operate on non-capitalist principles.

JDJ: Some in the cooperative movement say things like: “First and foremost, we have a need to survive. If we aren’t financially stable, then we’ll cease to exist, and then we’ll be really irrelevant.”  Is this appeal to survival a red herring?  How can cooperatives align themselves with a radical project and survive within capitalism?

CR: This is a specious argument. No one has ever questioned the need for co-ops to survive financially. This does not imply that they must be politically insular. On the contrary, co-ops must also survive philosophically and politically. If they renounce their fundamental principles to simply survive as a profitable business, then they are no longer co-ops and it doesn’t matter if they fail financially. Financial viability is only useful if they advance co-op principles for a better world. The point is not to simply make a lot of money and attract a lot of members. If the members are apolitical and not involved in true co-op activities in the broader sense, then they are retarding cooperation, not advancing it. Co-ops have the job of educating their members about co-op principles in the broad sense, not confined to the inadequate seven principles such as voluntary membership. They need to attract members who will participate in this education and activism. Smaller co-ops that have more principled, engaged, active members are far superior to large co-ops whose members are ignorant of cooperation, and uninvolved in the co-op and in the broader society.

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